American hunger grows increasingly visible, too. Here, in the richest country in the world, miles-long lines of cars queued up for food are now regular sights across Texas, New Jersey, Arizona, Ohio and other states.
The Census Bureau survey data also shows that about one-third of adults (35 percent, or 83 million) said it has been somewhat or very difficult to cover usual expenses such as food, rent, car payments or medical bills during the coronavirus pandemic. Roughly the same share expects someone in their household to lose employment income in the next four weeks, with numbers even higher in tourism-dependent states such as Nevada and Hawaii.
Separately, the Labor Department reported on Thursday that tens of millions of Americans are still filing for unemployment; millions more have either already exhausted their benefits or are set to do so soon, because they’ve been out of work so long.
Yes, a coronavirus vaccine is — happily — much nearer today than it once was. But we are likely still months away from widespread vaccine distribution, and, in the meantime, things may get much worse. For at least three reasons.
First, coronavirus infection rates are skyrocketing, reaching new daily highs. This bodes ill not just for lives but for livelihoods. Even without further “lockdowns” or other government restrictions, consumers and workers will stay away from economic activities that put their health at risk. As long as the virus is spreading unabated, it’s in control of the economy.
Second, federal relief measures keeping families and businesses afloat have been expiring one by one.
Congress has already let lapse the $600 federal weekly unemployment benefit supplement and has stopped accepting new applications for the small-business lending program. Next up are two other unemployment benefit expansion programs — one granting additional weeks of benefits, the other expanding eligibility to “gig workers,” freelancers and independent contractors. These programs will end the day after Christmas, robbing an estimated 12 million people of a crucial lifeline.
The coming benefits cliff extends beyond unemployment checks, by the way. The federal eviction moratorium, student-loan and mortgage forbearance programs, and emergency paid family and sick leave programs are slated to expire at year’s end, too.
Third, states and municipalities — both red and blue — are broke. Whatever fiscal problems they had before the pandemic have gotten much worse, thanks to lower tax revenue and higher demand for public services.
Unlike the feds, these governments generally have balanced-budget requirements. As a result, more public-sector layoffs are likely coming down the pike. “Defunding” the police — and, for that matter, the teachers, the firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other public servants — may soon become a painfully unavoidable reality.
It is long past time for policymakers to put country before party and reach a deal that will relieve some, if not all, of the pain. For months, though, lawmakers and the president have dragged their feet. Perhaps they were distracted by buoyant stock markets, or advances in vaccine development, or the early months of strong (but since flagging) job growth. Or the fact that sure, no amount of government spending can stimulate the economy back to its pre-covid state, so long as the virus still rages.
But the goal right now isn’t really to “stimulate” the economy. It’s to provide humanitarian relief. It’s to prevent a double-dip recession. And finally, it’s to limit permanent damage to the country’s health and productive capacity from business closures, deteriorating worker skills and children falling behind in school. Whenever a vaccine does become widely available, we want there to still be jobs for workers to return to.
In recent days, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have expressed willingness to pass on limited fiscal relief, in the neighborhood of $900 billion, to prevent the plunge in benefits expected at year’s end. But, so far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and outgoing President Trump have refused to back the compromise. Please, dear leaders: Don’t be the grinch who steals Christmas.