The U.S. response to the coronavirus has already been the costliest economic relief effort in modern history. At $4 trillion, the assortment of grants, loans and tax breaks exceeded the cost of the Afghanistan war.
More than half, or $2.3 trillion, went to businesses which in many cases were not required to show they were impacted by the pandemic or keep workers employed.
The bill included $651 billion in tax breaks, that often went to companies that laid off workers. The Cheesecake Factory, for example, furloughed 41,000 people, and said it will claim a tax break worth $50 million.
$454 billion went to the Federal Reserve to help stabilize markets, and those efforts enabled many companies, including Wells Fargo, AT&T and Carnival, to borrow at lower rates even while laying off employees.
While an accounting of the $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program remains unfinished, companies that received the money were not compelled to use it to protect paychecks - and many didn’t.
At $884 billion, roughly one-fifth of the relief money went to help workers and families.
While the stimulus attempted to ease the economic pain, economists say the real cause — the ongoing pandemic — was unaddressed. Only 16 percent of the money was allotted to fighting the health crisis, including testing and contact tracing.
$253 billion went to help state governments and public agencies pay for protective equipment, first responders and other pandemic impacts.
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The four spending bills that Congress passed earlier this year to address the coronavirus crisis amounted to one of the costliest relief efforts in U.S. history, and the undertaking soon won praise across the political spectrum for its size and speed.
The $4 trillion total of government grants and loans exceeded the cost of 18 years of war in Afghanistan.
“We’re going to win this battle in the very near future,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after the Senate approved the Cares Act, the largest of the four measures.
Six months later, however, the nation’s coronavirus battle is far from won, and if the prodigious relief spending was supposed to target the neediest and move the country beyond the pandemic, much of the money missed the mark.
The legislation bestowed billions in benefits on companies and wealthy individuals largely unscathed by the pandemic, according to a Washington Post analysis, while at the same time allowing special aid for unemployed workers to expire over the summer and leaving some local public health efforts struggling for money to conduct testing and other prevention efforts.
The relief packages amounted to a massive economic Band-Aid for what is fundamentally a health crisis, and much of the relief consisted of economic measures similar to those that have worked in previous recessions. But by failing to focus on containing the virus and the particular harms of the pandemic, the relief packages distributed money to those with little need for it while allowing the illness, which is now more widespread than when the bills passed, to outstrip the aid.
To be sure, the legislation rendered essential aid to the unemployed and helped boost the economy by injecting it with billions of government dollars. After the largest bill passed and the Federal Reserve took action, the stock market soared and the economy recovered about half of the jobs lost during the early shutdowns.
But the stock market has slumped recently, the unemployment rate stands at more than double pre-pandemic levels, and one of the few things both sides generally agree on is that trillions didn’t end the crisis. Both Democrats and Republicans have proposed more relief, but developing another spending bill has been complicated by disagreements over what has been achieved so far. Last week, House Democrats approved a $2.2 trillion relief proposal that is unlikely to move through the Republican-led Senate.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, one of the key negotiators, said it is clear that more relief is necessary.
Business reopenings and the Cares Act “have enabled a remarkable economic rebound, but some industries particularly hard-hit by the pandemic require additional relief,” Mnuchin said during his Sept. 22 testimony to Congress. “I believe a targeted package is still needed, and the administration is ready to reach a bipartisan agreement.”
More than half of the $4 trillion approved by Congress this spring was targeted to businesses, according to a Washington Post analysis based on figures from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an independent, nonprofit and bipartisan group. That and the other dollar figures in this story reflect the amounts Congress authorized. In some cases, the amounts spent and the projected impact on the U.S. deficit are lower.
Much of the money was issued to companies regardless of whether they were impacted by the pandemic or used it to pay employees.
The bill included $651 billion in business tax breaks that often went to companies unaffected by the pandemic and others that laid off thousands of workers. The Cheesecake Factory, for example, furloughed 41,000 people, and said it will claim a tax break worth $50 million.
Billions more went to the Federal Reserve to help stabilize markets, and those efforts enabled many companies — including Wells Fargo, AT&T and Carnival, the cruise company — to borrow at lower rates while also laying off thousands of workers.
Finally, while a complete accounting of the $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program isn’t likely to be available for months or years, companies that received the money were not compelled to use it to protect paychecks — and many didn’t.
More than 210 hotel owners received PPP funds, for example, and have yet to rehire most of their staffs, according to Unite Here, the union whose members staff the properties. Among them: Omni Hotels & Resorts, a chain controlled by Texas billionaire Robert Rowling. A group of Omni properties received between $30 million and $71 million from the PPP while also furloughing workers and cutting off their health insurance coverage.
“This has hit pretty hard for me and my daughters,” said Greg Kiraly, 43, who was a cook at the Omni hotel in Pittsburgh and who in recent weeks has found it “really humbling” to visit a food pantry for groceries. “It was something I never thought I would have to do.”
A hotel spokesperson, Kristen Cadenhead, said that the loan program has been “instrumental to our survival” and that the property has had to suspend operations because of extremely low business volumes.
“They should have thought about giving that money to the workers — rather than [Rowling],” Kiraly said. “I can guarantee he hasn’t walked to the food pantry to get a box of cornflakes to bring home to his kids.”
Crisis continues but aid running out
After the money for businesses, the next largest portion of the trillions in relief money, about one-fifth, went to help workers and families. The bills supplemented pay and sent one-time economic impact payments of up to $1,200 per person to 159 million American families. Other smaller portions went to state and local governments, other public agencies and health-care providers.
The toughest aspect of the relief efforts, at least for many workers and their employers, is that while the government programs offered a few months of help, the aid ceased well before the crisis did.
The PPP was designed to give eight weeks of help; unemployment supplements for millions of workers stopped this summer; airlines that received federal aid moved forward with plans to lay off tens of thousands of employees last Thursday, the first day on which the legislation permitted such cuts. The PPP aid was expanded in June to cover a 24-week period.
Yet the pandemic continues: More people are dying daily of the coronavirus than at the time the law was passed, on average, and the jobs numbers announced Friday indicate the recovery has slowed even as millions remain out of work. On Friday, President Trump said he tested positive for the virus.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer, who devised a pandemic recovery plan, said the problem with the federal response is it treated the crisis largely as an ordinary recession and overlooked the need to suppress the coronavirus.
“Too many people were fighting the last war and not recognizing the new circumstances we were facing,” Romer said in an interview. “They missed this point: For any other recession, this may have been a very good response. But because of this virus, it was doomed to fail.”
Of the trillions authorized by federal relief bills through mid-April, only a small portion was dedicated to the kinds of testing and contact-tracing programs most public health experts say are essential to reducing the virus. In the last relief bill, passed April 24, Congress approved $25 billion for testing, but much of that has yet to be spent.
A $1.6 trillion offer Mnuchin made to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week included $75 billion for testing and tracing, according to people familiar with it.
Romer’s plan dedicated $100 billion to testing; bipartisan expert groups have estimated similar or even larger costs.
“This is why the stimulus money was a waste: It got people back out there, but it also increased the rate of spread of the virus,” Romer said. “It was really totally ineffective to stimulate the economy without implementing measures to restrain the spread of the virus.”
The authors of a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper similarly raised doubts about whether the traditional government response to a recession was appropriate.
“The only path to full economic recovery in the long run may be to restore consumer confidence by addressing the virus itself,” according to the paper by economists at Opportunity Insights.
Spending ballooned as panic mounted
The centerpiece of the federal relief programs is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act, the third and largest of the four relief bills.
It came together during a time of vertiginous panic.
By mid-March, Congress already had assembled two relief bills: an $8 billion one, and another for $192 billion. But even before the second was approved March 18, it was clear the moment demanded something more.
Stock prices had plunged by about a third in just a month; NBA games and Broadway performances were being suspended; hospital staffs pleaded that without help, they might run out of intensive care beds and ventilators.
“It is only a matter of time before ICU beds are full,” warned New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).
The negotiations quickly snowballed into $2.6 trillion in spending.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) first rolled out a proposal March 16 to spend at least $750 billion. It offered money to pay for ventilators, hospital beds and masks, as well as aid for the unemployed.
Days later, McConnell and Republican leaders announced a broader, more costly bill. Much of it was aimed at businesses, with a $300 billion fund for small businesses that would evolve into the PPP, more than $100 billion in tax breaks, and $208 billion in loans to airlines and other industries.
The plan also gave individuals one-time payments of as much as $1,200.
The spending was now over $1 trillion, but negotiations continued, with Mnuchin shuttling between the offices of Schumer and McConnell, and the costs mounted. Additions to the bill included bumping unemployment checks to $600 a week, and billions more for state and local governments, health-care providers, and Federal Reserve programs to make corporate borrowing cheaper.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and by voice vote in the House. Trump signed it on March 27.
“This will deliver urgently needed relief to our nation’s families, workers and businesses,” Trump said. “And that’s what this is all about.”
Who benefits from two of the largest relief programs in the Cares Act
In recessions, governments often spend in order to pump up flagging economic demand: This keeps companies and households afloat and encourages growth. Because the effects of a recession are often widespread, it makes sense to distribute the money widely, economists say.
The Cares Act and the other federal relief followed this approach on a grand scale.
Critically, lawmakers issued benefits to companies without requiring them to show that they had been significantly affected by the pandemic. Most corporate recipients didn’t have to promise to forgo layoffs, either.
But the current economic crisis is fundamentally different from past recessions. The lack of economic demand arises from a pandemic that keeps people from going out to spend, and the damage so far has been uneven. Hotels, restaurants, barbershops, movies and the like have been hammered. Others such as insurance companies, technology firms and home goods manufacturers have prospered.
So while the Cares Act and other bills spread out the money, much of it appears to have benefited companies that don’t need help.
There may be no clearer example of this than the Cares Act tax breaks.
The legislation offered generous tax breaks for businesses of any size, in any industry and regardless of need. Congress estimated they will cost the federal government $250 billion, an amount that is significant even within the scope of federal budgets: The IRS collected roughly the same amount from all corporate income taxes in 2019.
The largest chunk of those tax breaks consisted of a $135 billion benefit for business owners. The measure gives an average benefit of $1.6 million to 43,000 individuals with incomes in excess of $1 million, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan congressional body. Applicants must have suffered an operating loss in 2018, 2019 or 2020 — so they’re eligible even if their loss occurred well before the coronavirus appeared.
The IRS does not publicly share identities of these business owners. But dozens of public companies applied for a similar Cares Act tax break and have disclosed the benefit to shareholders. Many were unaffected by the pandemic.
Manulife, a Canadian insurance giant with $20 billion in cash reserves, said that it is eligible for a $54 million tax refund under the new law. Owens & Minor, a medical equipment maker, plans to claim $13 million, even though rising demand for personal protective gear sent its stock soaring. Organic grocery distributor United Natural Foods, where revenue jumped by $1 billion during the pandemic as more people cooked at home, applied to receive a $28 million tax refund.
“We’re thriving,” Chris Testa, the president of United Natural Foods, boasted during a June trade conference.
Jeff Swanson, a United Natural Foods spokesman, noted that the company has hired during the pandemic, extended temporary raises and offered additional employee health benefits. Owens & Minor did not respond to requests for comment, and a Manulife spokeswoman declined to comment.
Generally, the tax breaks were not well targeted to companies affected by the pandemic, according to an analysis of hundreds of corporate filings conducted at the University of Chicago. Companies in the hardest-hit industries and regions were no more likely to claim the tax breaks than others, researchers found.
Moreover, while enriching shareholders, the tax breaks offered little incentive to keep workers. Companies that receive them are under no obligation to refrain from furloughs and layoffs.
The Cheesecake Factory, for example, furloughed 41,000 workers earlier this year but fulfilled its commitment to issue $3.7 million in stock dividends to preferred shareholders. It expects to receive a $50 million tax refund.
Among those furloughed from the restaurant chain was bartender Austin Dombrosky, who was out of work for more than 11 weeks.
“They’re not worried about their employees,” said Dombrosky, 31, who earns Utah’s minimum wage of $2.13 an hour plus tips, which he relies on to pay rent and school tuition. “I see them looking at the money as a safety net for future problems, but they could care less about their hourly employees.”
Matthew Clark, the Cheesecake Factory’s chief financial officer, said that the furloughs followed government-ordered store closures and that for their duration the company paid health-care premiums and offered a free meal daily to those out of work.
The tax breaks may even help some companies eliminate jobs. Boeing, which laid off 19,000 employees this year, said on a July earnings call that its Cares Act tax refund would help cover the cost of the severance packages it owed departing workers.
A Boeing spokesperson declined to comment.
One tax break in the Cares Act permits any company that lost money in 2018, 2019 or 2020 to apply those losses to previous, more profitable years. Some form of this provision, called a “carryback” of net operating losses, has been permitted by the U.S. tax code for over a century to help businesses that face ups and downs to even out their taxes.
The Cares Act supercharged this tax strategy, raising the limit on the amount of losses companies can use to offset taxes and permitting them to apply those losses to earlier periods. By exploiting the difference in corporate tax rates in previous years, companies with recent losses can increase tax refunds they received years ago by up to 67 percent.
One of the reasons Senate Republicans decided to include this particular tax break is that it has been used in years past following U.S. disasters, according to a Republican aide involved in the Cares Act negotiation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. Congress expanded this type of tax break following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession.
In designing the Cares Act, lawmakers looked for “known concepts that we have used before or that we can modify fairly modestly that are known to businesses and the IRS,” the aide said.
The tax breaks will “unburden businesses so they can keep employing those who are home caring for their families and helping to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who led Senate Republicans proposing the tax breaks.
But rather than helping people and companies most affected by the pandemic, the tax breaks may simply enrich shareholders. Many of the firms claiming the tax break are rewarding investors with dividends and share buybacks.
In August, for example, the CEO of home insurer Assurant told investors it made sense to reward shareholders “given the attractiveness of our stock and strong capital position.” It reported no negative impact from the pandemic, and paid investors $160 million in buybacks and dividends.
Assurant’s Cares Act tax refunds totaled $205 million. Linda Recupero, an Assurant spokeswoman, said the company would have used existing tax laws to recoup some of this tax benefit even without the Cares Act.
Companies borrow cheaply, lay off workers
Other Cares Act programs likewise offered billions in help to companies regardless of whether they needed it, and regardless of whether they would maintain their payrolls.
Officials have committed $75 billion, for example, for a Federal Reserve program that has helped lower interest rates on corporate bonds, allowing most companies to borrow more cheaply. The result has been a borrowing binge that made April the busiest month on record for investment-grade corporate bond sales, according to Bloomberg.
All of these companies are weathering the pandemic: Procter & Gamble issued $5 billion worth; Coca-Cola got $6.5 billion; Apple issued $8.5 billion. Oracle had a $20 billion debt offering.
There are no requirements that they keep their workers on the payroll, and of the 34 companies that offered the largest corporate bond issues between March and August, 1 in 3 have reportedly had or announced layoffs, according to a Post review based on data from S&P Global Intelligence.
AT&T, for example, reportedly issued $12 billion in corporate bonds in May and within a few weeks announced it was laying off thousands of workers. Among them was Jay Toro, who worked in sales at a company store at Orlando’s Altamonte Mall. About the same time, Toro and his wife had their first child. They soon fell behind on rent and lost one apartment. They have a new place now, but he’s relying on savings and still looking for a job.
“It’s not fair to leave [workers] high and dry,” Toro said. “I would tell them to just take it easy on their workers.”
An AT&T spokesperson noted that the Fed’s intervention did not amount to a direct subsidy and that laid-off employees would receive severance pay and health-care coverage for up to six months.
The largest single relief effort to help affected businesses and workers was the PPP, which offered “small” companies $670 billion in forgivable loans.
Businesses with up to 500 employees were eligible, though that limit was relaxed for restaurant and hotel companies. To encourage companies to use the money to retain employees, the loans were forgiven if more than 60 percent went toward payroll. To apply for the loans, companies had to certify they had experienced the “current economic uncertainty,” but did not have to offer proof.
It was, according to the Trump administration, a resounding success.
“Thanks to our Paycheck Protection Program, we have saved or supported more than 50 million American jobs,” Trump said during his speech at the Republican National Convention in August.
Cailin Schmeer, a Treasury spokesperson, said the administration’s jobs estimate was based on economic modeling, although the analysis was not published.
“It’s called the Paycheck Protection Program,” Mnuchin said in May. “The real purpose here was to get people back to work.”
Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase — one of the banks that disbursed the money — also defended the program, telling CNBC in August that it likely saved 30 million to 35 million jobs. JPMorgan spokeswoman Patricia Wexler said they could find no internal bank research explaining the number and did not know how Dimon came up with it.
Economists who have studied the results, however, have come up with far more modest estimates of the program’s effects.
In the first two months of the program, when shutdowns were the most widespread, the program saved only 2.3 million jobs, a small fraction of Trump’s estimate, researchers from the Federal Reserve, the ADP Research Institute and MIT estimated. If their figure is correct, that means the program laid out about $286,000 to save each job.
Most of the money likely accrued to owners of companies that were going to retain their employees anyway, said David Autor, an MIT professor who was one of the researchers. He noted that if the government offers money to people to take a certain action — such as retaining employees — the first in line will be people who were going to do that anyway.
“The Paycheck Protection Program had grand ambitions,” Autor said, noting that it aided millions of business owners. “But it does not appear to have preserved very many jobs.”
Government statistics similarly indicate the money did not flow proportionally to the most affected industries and cities.
For example, in New York, which experienced the worst coronavirus outbreak in the United States, less than 20 percent of small businesses were approved to receive PPP loans, economists at the New York Fed wrote in May, while in Nebraska more than 55 percent of small businesses were expecting PPP funding.
“There is actually a negative relationship between COVID-19 cases per capita and the share of small firms getting PPP funding,” the economists wrote.
The mismatch was not just geographical, either.
Industries relatively unaffected by the pandemic received large chunks of PPP money; meanwhile, some of the hardest-hit received less.
Share of loan money received compared to jobs lost across industries
Companies categorized as providing professional, scientific or technical services — such as legal advice, engineering or accounting — suffered relatively light pandemic losses. For example, they accounted for only about 3 percent of all U.S. job losses between February and April. Yet they received 13 percent of the loan money.
Job losses in the hotel and restaurant industry meanwhile accounted for about 32 percent of the nation’s total, but those companies received only 8 percent of the PPP money.
One key problem with the Paycheck Protection Program is that many of the most affected businesses saw no reason to use it. Why take a loan to hire employees back for eight weeks, they asked, when the customers weren’t returning?
Julie Stone, who owns a 73-room EconoLodge outside Buffalo, applied for a $60,000 PPP loan in April. She was quickly approved, but then decided not to take the money.
“At the time we were renting 10 rooms a night, five rooms a night. I’m going to bring back all my staff to bring them back and kind of do nothing?” she asked. “Truth be told, we’re so far down in the hole that $60,000 wasn’t going to make or break us.”
When the program closed Aug. 8, more than $130 billion of the money Congress put up was left unused even though millions of jobs hadn’t returned.
Like others in the hotel and restaurant business, Stone is still waiting for customers. In typical summers, many Canadian travelers would drive south for vacations and stop at her place, but they didn’t this year. The nearby Six Flags amusement park never opened at all. She brought back nine of the 14 employees, but only three days a week. She asked family to help with cleaning and maintenance.
“Will I survive? I hope so,” she said.
Even at companies that received PPP money, many paychecks were not protected — there were significant job losses.
Potbelly, the Chicago-based sandwich chain, is worth an estimated $93 million and its backers include private equity and venture capital firms. In August, the company won a $10 million PPP loan.
Its restaurants serving downtown office workers have suffered massive losses, and the company has been forced to close 16 stores and cut costs.
CEO Robert Wright said in a statement to The Post that “the [PPP] funds will go to our dedicated employees, to preserving jobs and to keeping shops open.”
The company would not say, however, how many of its 6,000 employees it has furloughed or laid off permanently, but its financial filings indicate it has made significant job cuts: Company spending on labor in the second quarter dropped by about a third, a decline of $10 million.
Among the jobs not likely to return are those at the Potbelly store in El Paso, which closed with the arrival of the pandemic, throwing eight or nine people out of work. Many of those employees started at $8.25 an hour and sometimes worked off the clock to keep the store open to keep costs under budget, said Uriel Sanchez, a trainer who left the restaurant before the closure.
“A lot of people, including me, did that because they like their jobs and they care about their co-workers,” he said, adding that Potbelly cared about its employees and that he hoped the company would use most of its PPP funds to keep employees. “A lot of these people have big families and this is their only source of income.”
Scant funding for pandemic ‘hurricane’
Six months after the Cares Act, however, what may be its most obvious flaw is that the virus has outdistanced the trillions of dollars in relief.
The reasons for the disease’s persistence in the United States are complicated, but there are signs that despite the historic spending so far, too little has reached some groups fighting to suppress the virus.
Under the Trump administration’s “Opening Up America Again” plan, the critical tasks of testing and contact tracing have been left to state and local governments. What that has meant in practice is that state and local health groups — community health centers, local health departments, nonprofit groups — have mobilized to set up test sites. Local health departments have sought to undertake contact tracing.
Exactly how they would pay for those efforts was less clear.
The relief bills devoted $13.4 billion to local public health efforts, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. An additional $150 billion was devoted generally to state and local governments, but public health agencies have seen just a small fraction of that. The relief bills also ordered insurance companies to pay the costs of testing for those they insure.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans think that’s been enough.
This month, Republicans offered a relief bill that included an additional $16 billion for testing and contact tracing, and in May, the Democrats called for putting up $75 billion for those measures.
Meanwhile, other estimates say even more is necessary: Romer called for a $100 billion testing and tracing program; a bipartisan group based at Harvard including economists and public health experts estimated in April that appropriate testing needed as much as $300 billion over two years; a bipartisan group known as the United States of Care called for devoting $46 billion to contact tracing alone.
Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the local agencies directly tackling the pandemic have been underfunded for years, and agrees that the money allocated to local efforts hasn’t been enough.
“The pandemic is like a hurricane,” she said. “This strong wind is blowing and we’re running around trying to patch up small holes in a wall that’s toppling over.”
Indeed, across the country, local health groups have struggled to confront the virus.
In Ohio, local health commissioners estimated that they needed $110 million to cover enforcement of pandemic rules and assistance to reopen businesses and schools; so far, they’ve received a tenth of that.
In the Mississippi Delta, the Aaron E. Henry Community Health Center was running drive-through sites and testing 250 people a week, but has scaled back to 50 a week to conserve money and because the wait for the results was too long.
In Idaho, a nonprofit group dedicated to the pandemic quickly set up three community testing sites around Boise, but ended them after 10 days because of the budget, even though each site cost only $2,500 a day to run. Each location performed as many as 500 tests daily and, using a tech-enabled system from Medical Network Solutions, returned results within 48 hours.
“We were running strictly on donations — and it is what it is,” said Tina Upson, executive director of Crush the Curve, the group that ran the test sites. “We were stretched thin financially and we didn’t know if we were going to keep our doors open. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford to keep them up. It was a simple math problem.”
The situation may be most dire at small local health departments.
At the Cooper County Public Health Center in rural Missouri, officials said they’ve been forced to refuse tests to some people, including those from outside the county and those who might feel sick but lack respiratory symptoms.
“We’ve been operating on virtually nothing,” said administrator Melanie Hutton. “It’s hard to say, ‘No, you’re not from our county, we’re unable to test you.’ We can’t just take anyone.”
With more money, Hutton said, the department would have offered more tests, set up a testing van or arranged for a more convenient lab. Currently, a staff member has to drive two hours to drop off samples.
The department might even have issued a mask order — but that likely would have faced a court challenge, she said, requiring a costly legal defense. In early September, the department received just $17,600.
“Right now, we don’t have any ability to enforce a mask order,” Hutton said. “And we cannot afford a lawsuit."