WASHINGTON — The coronavirus has exposed the weaknesses of the US safety net, forcing even conservative lawmakers to embrace its expansion for the duration of the crisis.

Throughout his term, President Trump has chipped away at the social safety net, proposing budgets that gutted housing assistance, food stamps, and health insurance for the poorest Americans. When Congress rejected those cuts, the Trump administration enacted rules to make it harder to access federal benefits, such as requiring recipients to work.

Now, with businesses shuttered, workers laid off, and scores more worrying about buying groceries, being evicted, and getting sick, the swelling need for federal assistance has forced even conservative lawmakers to embrace government protections in a series of sweeping stimulus bills.


Republicans are proposing sending direct cash payments of $1,200 to individual Americans, an idea that, on the surface, echoes former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s universal basic income platform. They want to bolster the unemployment insurance system after many GOP-led states spent years enacting restrictive criteria and reducing benefits.

‘‘Anybody who is a moderate-wage worker who just experienced an economic lockdown in their state is in distress. Most people don’t have savings,’’ said Robert Rector, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that guides much of the Trump administration’s policy making.

Rector, an architect of the 1996 federal welfare overhaul that instituted work requirements under President Bill Clinton, generally opposes safety net measures that do not promote work and marriage. But he would like to see more-generous benefits for individuals and cities in crisis in response to the coronavirus — for a finite period of time.

‘‘Quite frankly, I’m willing to spend more money right now,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a very different thing in an emergency.’’

The Families First coronavirus response package Trump signed last week dramatically expands paid sick leave and family medical leave for tens of millions of workers, provisions aimed at blunting the economic impact of the pandemic.


The United States lags behind other developed countries when it comes to providing universal health care as well as paid leave for sick workers and those who have to care for family members.

‘‘Here we had this ‘strong economy’ and all of a sudden the bubble has burst, and policy makers are scrambling to put into place basic protections other societies have,’’ said Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

The number of people without health insurance rose to more than 27 million people in 2018, or about 8.5 percent of the country, the Census Bureau reported last fall, the latest figures available. Health care experts attributed the rise — the first annual increase since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2009 — to the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine President Barack Obama’s signature health law. Under Trump, individuals are no longer required to have coverage, and insurers are allowed to sell cheaper plans that cover fewer medical services and don’t offer protections for people with preexisting conditions.