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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives gutted the social safety net. Now, in a crisis, they’re embracing it.

A man smoking had the lonely look of an Edward Hopper painting in an alley just off H Street NW in Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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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 sweeping stimulus bills.

In the $2 trillion relief package approved by the Senate Wednesday, Republicans unanimously agreed to send 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 also bolstered 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 policymaking.

Rector, an architect of the 1996 federal welfare overhaul under President Bill Clinton that instituted work requirements, 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 $100-billion-plus 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 policymakers 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.

As layoffs skyrocket, the holes in America’s safety net are becoming apparent

Health care

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 2010 — 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.

Under last week’s emergency spending package, the government will bear the full cost of testing for covid-19 for all Americans, including those who are uninsured. The package also raised federal spending on Medicaid and health insurance for children in low-income families.

Over the weekend, the administration said the pandemic has prompted it to consider opening a special enrollment period for private health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which the Trump administration, congressional Republicans and GOP-led states have been trying for years to repeal.

Trump on Sunday reiterated his commitment to repealing the Affordable Care Act when asked whether he would rethink his administration’s backing of a lawsuit to invalidate the health-care law. “What we want to do is get rid of the bad health care and put in a great health care,” said Trump, without specifying how he would replace the health-care law.

Paid sick leave

About a quarter of all workers — more than 30 million people — do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many work low-wage jobs in restaurants and retail that involve constant contact with the public.

The emergency response bill provides workers at small and midsize companies with two weeks of paid sick leave for the rest of the year.

Companies are putting out hand sanitizer. But for years, many have campaigned against sick pay.

Paid family leave

Parents who have to stay home to care for their children amid widespread school closures would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave.

Paid family leave, which Democrats have long sought, has gained bipartisan traction in recent months, with Trump becoming the first Republican president to call for such a measure in his State of the Union address in February. His daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump has pushed hard for the policy, and the Republican-led Senate in December agreed to fund 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for federal employees, which Trump signed into law.

Unemployment insurance

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes money to help states process and cover the increasing number of unemployment insurance claims. A record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the biggest jump ever in new jobless claims, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Wednesday’s economic rescue package, the largest in U.S. history, would boost unemployment benefits even more. The bill expands eligibility and offers workers an extra $600 a week for four months, in addition to their benefits under state unemployment programs.

Facing eviction as millions shelter in place

Republicans’ embrace of unemployment benefits marks a departure from the Obama years. As the economy began to improve, support for many of the provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including extending such benefits from 26 weeks up to 99 weeks, eroded among conservatives — even through long spells of unemployment, said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

“In any crisis, there’s a general willingness to support policies people would not support outside of the crisis, particularly for conservatives reluctant to support robust economic security systems,” he said. “The question will be how long that support will last.”

Veronique de Rugy, an economist at the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said, “Democrats have not made it a secret that this is their time to reshape our system” when it comes to paid sick and family leave — “the kinds of things that are more prone to be extended” after the coronavirus crisis subsides.

Republicans have been more amenable to expanding the safety net under Trump’s presidency than they were during the Obama-era recession, she said, noting that only three Senate Republicans — and none in the House — supported the 2009 stimulus package.

“It’s easier to say no to ideas you don’t like when you’re in the minority than when you’re actually at the helm of this process,” de Rugy said.

Food assistance

The Families First bill bolsters food programs for children and seniors and suspends the Trump administration’s rule requiring more adults to work to be eligible for food stamps. The rule, which would have removed about 700,000 people from the program, was supposed to go into effect April 1 but was blocked by a federal judge. The Agriculture Department is weighing whether to challenge the court decision.

The rule is part of a broader overhaul of government assistance programs arising from an executive order Trump signed in 2018 directing federal agencies to strengthen existing work requirements and introduce new ones for low-income Americans receiving Medicaid, food stamps, public housing benefits and welfare.

Lest anyone mistake the recent Republican moves to expand access to safety net provisions as a permanent shift, analysts say history has shown that to be unlikely.

“Clearly we want emergency provisions here,” Rector said. “But it shouldn’t be a Trojan horse for permanently transforming the welfare state.”

How long the expanded safety net provisions remain in place will depend on how many weeks or months the economic shutdown to contain the coronavirus is sustained.

“Economic shocks like this expose the weaknesses in the existing safety net and present us with a dilemma on whether we are fixing something for the short term or trying to do something more structural,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

The longer people are confined to their homes, and the longer that stores, restaurants and other businesses remain closed, the more Americans will be accessing federal assistance — not just those with the lowest incomes. That could change public opinion about the value of the safety net — or even what it should be composed of — as well as the role of government, Waxman said.

“The meaning of a safety net takes on a whole different connotation in this environment,” she said. “A longer-term scenario puts all of that on the table in a way that we could not have imagined discussing three months ago.”

Perhaps even a basic monthly living stipend — or “freedom dividend,” as Yang proposed.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Affordable Care Act passed in 2009. It passed in 2010. The story has been updated.