Let’s start with the facts. Last week, 1.6 million Americans filed new unemployment claims, 881,000 in traditional unemployment and another 759,000 in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which helps those, such as gig workers, who aren’t covered under regular unemployment. In total, 29 million Americans are getting some kind of unemployment assistance, a number that is no less staggering for the fact that we’re starting to get used to it.
Yet those people are getting far less help than they were a short time ago. The extra $600 weekly that Congress appropriated as part of the Cares Act has expired. Trump claimed he was giving back $300 of that with an executive action moving some money away from disaster relief, but because it was designed so poorly — including the insertion of a requirement that you had to be getting at least $100 in state aid to qualify — many people aren’t getting even that.
The Associated Press explains, in part by profiling a pregnant woman who gets only $96 a week from the state of Mississippi:
Yet because of a raft of restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles, more than 1 million of the unemployed won’t receive that $300 check, and their financial struggles will deepen. Many, like Fenderson, were low-paid workers whose state unemployment aid falls below the $100 weekly threshold. That stands to widen the inequalities that disproportionately hurt Black and Latino workers, who are more likely to work in low-wage jobs.Some gig and contract workers won’t qualify, either. What’s more, the Trump administration’s program requires the unemployed to certify that their job loss stemmed from the coronavirus — a provision that could trip up many. And the disaster relief money that is funding the new benefit could run dry in coming weeks.
So: It was too small, it was too hard to access, and it will run out soon anyway.
Then there’s Trump’s deferment of the payroll tax, an idea so stupid he couldn’t even get Republicans to sign on to it. In addition to starving the Social Security system of funds, it gives workers a tax cut now that they’ll have to pay back in 2021, leaving them on the hook for a huge tax bill later on.
It seemed like such a terrible deal that corporations and industry groups quickly said that since it was voluntary, they just weren’t going to bother. So what did Trump do? He forced federal workers, whom he has treated with undisguised contempt ever since taking office, to accept the deferral. The head of the American Federation of Government Employees called it a “scam that leaves workers with a substantial tax bill right after the holiday season.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are ambling reluctantly in the direction of another stimulus bill, which could include enhanced unemployment benefits and an extension of loans to small businesses. But, as ever, Democrats are asking for more help for the economy and Republicans are asking to do as little as possible.
And the one thing we really need to have an economic recovery — getting the coronavirus pandemic under control — is also something the administration seems uninterested in achieving. Consider this shocking report in Politico:
Just eight weeks from election day, the White House has stopped trying to contain the coronavirus — shifting instead to shielding the nation’s most vulnerable groups and restoring a sense of normalcy.The change is part of a concerted effort by the White House to increase public approval of President Donald Trump’s pandemic response — and bolster his reelection chances — by sharply reducing Covid-19 case counts and the number of deaths and hospitalizations attributed to virus, according to five people familiar with the strategy.
Having utterly bungled the pandemic until now, the administration has decided to move away from widespread testing for the virus so that case counts will appear lower. Perhaps it’s because of Trump’s longstanding complaint that knowing how many people have been infected makes him look bad, which is now being translated into policy in a more concerted way.
Or perhaps it’s because he’s now getting his advice on the pandemic from a radiologist with training in neither epidemiology nor public health, who got his job because Trump saw him on Fox News. Or, more likely, both.
In any case, we are faced with two interrelated failures, one of governance and one of legislating. There are now more than 183,000 Americans dead from covid-19 and tens of millions who have lost their jobs. The president thinks it’s not his responsibility to fix it. Republicans in Congress would rather not bother.
Maybe they all think that both the pandemic and the recession will just “go away,” as Trump has said many times. The virus will magically disappear, everyone will go back to work, and it will prove that the best way to make policy is to neither know nor care how to actually solve problems. Wouldn’t that be nice.