In the short term, the aid Congress has already authorized must be pushed out with far greater urgency. As of now, it could take up to five months for some Americans to get their one-time relief checks. Independent contractors and the self-employed faced delays in applying for help under the program for small businesses. For the rest, rules were issued only at the last minute, and some borrowers fear banks are favoring existing customers.
Yes, a certain amount of confusion might be forgiven for a novel effort. But the Trump administration’s bungling of so many aspects of the pandemic tells us to be deeply wary. And the difficulties states face in handling the unprecedented number of applications for unemployment insurance need to be addressed now.
But strange as it may seem, the relief bill itself was excessively optimistic in its assumptions about where the economy is headed. Some 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in March. The month’s drop of 701,000 in non-farm payrolls was close to the peak monthly losses during the Great Recession.
State and local officials see budgetary mayhem on the horizon, and the federal assistance coming their way in the rescue plan is inadequate. Thus the urgency of a new economic rescue package that includes far more help for lower levels of government. “If states do massive layoffs or budget cuts,” said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “you’re just going to prolong and deepen the recession.”
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo feuded with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over her, shall we say, controversial efforts to quarantine New Yorkers coming into her state. But she and Cuomo, who has called for more federal aid, are at one on budget matters.
While Raimondo’s immediate concern is for the plight of her state’s hospitals and small businesses, she pointed to the double fiscal effect of the pandemic.
“The costs are going through the roof, at a time when our revenues are falling off a cliff,” she told me. “Unemployment insurance claims are skyrocketing, health costs are skyrocketing, and we have had to invent a lot of new social services” to deal with the coronavirus fallout.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, like Raimondo a moderate Democrat, said transportation programs have often been first to be cut in her state in budget crises, which is counterproductive to growth. Governments, Kelly said in an interview, “should make sure that we’re a job creator, not a job killer.” New Deal-style jobs programs, she added, may suddenly be appropriate again.
Also essential: Programs that were time-limited in the rescue package, notably the big unemployment insurance increases, should be beefed up, extended beyond their current expiration dates and put on automatic pilot. They can switch off when economic indicators turn positive. The one-time payments in the original rescue should be delivered quickly now and authorized again.
Improvements in recently enacted family and medical leave rules could help many who have been forced to stay home, and a major increase in food stamp payments is essential. Hunger is a real threat, as my Post colleague Catherine Rampell documented last week. And food stamps help more than just hungry people: Economist Mark Zandi showed during the Great Recession that food stamps are a highly effective economic stimulus.
For many, lost jobs mean lost health insurance. Republicans are allergic to the words “universal coverage,” but no one should stay away from a doctor during a pandemic for fear of the cost. If ever there were a time to expand Medicaid and access to Obamacare, this is it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters last week that if “we do not address the economic consequences” of the crisis, “that light at the end of the tunnel will . . . be the proverbial train coming at us.” Yes, and she signaled Friday that she was willing to put off some of her more ambitious aspirations if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on the need to build on the existing rescue program. McConnell, having earlier resisted a new bill, said he was ready to do business.
Perhaps McConnell was pondering the fate of a Republican president named Herbert Hoover, who was engulfed by the Great Depression.
McConnell can’t want a replay. Surely the rest of us don’t.