Measured by the that standard, the Senate Republican response is still too timid despite its massive $1 trillion price tag. The provision that offers loans to small businesses without any underwriting comes close to meeting the need. Smaller businesses will be the ones most damaged by social distancing, because so many of them depend on social activity or walk-in sales. Extending an open door for federal help to offset the damage matches the help to the need. The more people whose businesses and jobs can be maintained during the crisis, the better off we will all be.
The provision that forgives those loans — so long as they are used to make payroll and employee benefits expenses — is another master stroke. This effectively turns a loan into a gift, which is a fitting approach since government action caused the downturn to begin with. One could ask whether the huge price tag for small-business relief — $300 billion — is enough, but that’s just a detail. If it’s not enough, simply raise the amount. “Whatever it takes” has to be the mantra to meet the need.
The bill’s other major part, however, is not satisfactory. The proposal to send people checks neither targets the aid correctly nor provides enough to the people who need it most.
This section’s flaw stems from its structure as an income tax credit. The so-called checks are really just an advance of a new credit to be applied against next year’s taxes. This approach discriminates against low-paid workers and gives aid to people who may be less affected economically.
The discrimination against low-paid people happens because the minimum credit is too low. Those with no income-tax liability will only get $600 per adult. These people are much more likely to make less than $50,000 a year but are probably more likely to lose their jobs as a result of the downturn. Giving less aid to people who need it more is wrong.
Republicans also are surely underestimating how many people will qualify for only the minimum credit. The 2017 GOP tax bill raised the standard deduction and the child tax credit so that a family with one child filing a joint tax return needs to make nearly $44,000 before it incurs any income tax liability at all. A family with two children has to make more than $60,000 to pay any federal income tax. So the stimulus bill limits almost all working-class or low- to middle-income families to $600.
Contrast that with a married couple making around $140,000. That family would qualify for a $2,400 check plus $500 extra for each child. They might not even lose their job but would get thousands of dollars from the federal government. That’s not fair.
Republicans should instead either reverse the order of who gets more money or junk the check approach in favor of massive increases to the amount one receives in unemployment compensation. The first alternative would give the most money to the people who need it the most, those who earn less and are more likely to lose their jobs. Give them the maximum credit amounts and give the minimum amount to the people making $100,000 or more. This could be structured as a one-time personal tax credit similar to the old personal deduction, phasing out based on income somewhere north of the median family income. The second approach would make the unemployment check equal to the gross, pre-tax pay a laid-off person made in their last two pay stubs.
The Fifth Amendment’s takings clause says the government shall not take “private property for public use . . . without just compensation.” Government action to stop the coronavirus is effectively taking people’s property — their businesses and incomes — for public health uses. Republicans who grasp that will ensure that any stimulus justly compensates everyone to the full measure of their loss.