On Tuesday, after months of political paralysis, a bipartisan group of Senators put forward a new coronavirus relief proposal. Priced at $908 billion, $560 billion of which is apparently already accounted for by the previously passed CARES Act, the proposal is pitifully inadequate. The Senate’s stinginess will not suffice to lift the nation out of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, which has delivered a serious direct blow to tens of millions of workers with guaranteed knock-on effects, the worst of which may be yet to come.
The new proposal stipulates only $300 a week in expanded federal unemployment insurance, just half of what the CARES Act allocated eight months ago, despite the fact that unemployment claims are rising. It also contains stricter unemployment insurance requirements, which are supposedly intended to prevent “fraud” but will end up boxing out people who need the already diminished benefits.
The proposal also features a liability shield immunizing corporations against lawsuits over exposure to COVID-19, including from employees who were insufficiently protected on the job. For some absurd reason, it also stipulates a 100 percent tax deduction on business meals. And perhaps most galling, it earmarks no money for direct cash assistance, meaning that if the proposal goes forward as is, the $1,200 people received at the start of the pandemic may be the only check many of them see throughout the whole economic crisis.
At the press conference for the proposal’s unveiling, one of its architects, Mitt Romney (R-Utah), justified such parsimony with reference to the deficit, an issue that didn’t seem to bother Senate Republicans (including Romney, who supported the measure) when they passed Trump’s regressive, deficit-financed, trillion-dollar tax reform plan in 2017. The centrist Democrats working on the deal, such as Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), have little leverage against this talking point, since they have also built careers as deficit hawks.
Negotiations are still ongoing, but it’s already clear that any relief package that might emerge from them will be too little too late. Twenty-five million Americans have taken a severe economic hit. Fifty-four million Americans are experiencing food insecurity. Eight million Americans have slipped into poverty over the course of the pandemic, to say nothing of those who were already below the line. Five million Americans have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance in the middle of a public health crisis. Uneven communication about and application of the law has resulted in a continual wave of evictions in spite of a federal eviction moratorium.
Whether best explained by dysfunctionality or indifference or both, the federal government response has not risen to a level commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Indeed Congress’s months-long impasse has amounted to a near-total abandonment of the American people in their time of greatest need — leaving them to fend for themselves and rely on each other through informal kinship and charity networks.
Another Grim Winter
The inaction calls to mind the federal government’s failure to rise to the occasion during the early years of the Great Depression.
At the time, there was a delusional but stubborn belief that the crisis, attributable to mysterious and chimerical but ultimately self-stabilizing markets, would soon disappear as suddenly as it had appeared. This optimism was convenient, because before the New Deal there was no national apparatus for the administration of public relief anyway.
In the absence of an earnest government relief response, which would have demanded (and eventually did demand) massive expenditures on public jobs and other relief measures, President Herbert Hoover spoke of the urgent necessity of mutual aid.
In October of 1931, he gave an address which emphasized the role of volunteer community groups, churches, fraternal organizations, and other non-state organs of charity. “This task is not beyond the ability of these thousands of community organizations to solve,” he said. Hoover continued:
To solve this problem in this way accords with the fundamental sense of responsibility, neighbor to neighbor, community to community, upon which our Nation is founded…
It is with these convictions in mind that I have the responsibility of opening this nationwide appeal to citizens in each community that they provide the funds with which, community by community, this task shall be met. The maintenance of a spirit of mutual self-help through voluntary giving, through the responsibility of local government, is of infinite importance to the future of America…
No governmental action, no economic doctrine, no economic plan or project can replace that God-imposed responsibility of the individual man and woman to their neighbors.”
It was an abdication of political responsibility smuggled inside an appeal to individual morality.
In some ways, 2020 looks similar to 1931: a deepening economic crisis, a vacuum of national political leadership, inadequate welfare infrastructure, metastasizing inequality, and the sentimental and mistaken belief that generosity from family and strangers can substitute for a concerted nationwide economic relief program.
Hoover hoped that “upon this Thanksgiving Day we have removed the fear of the forthcoming winter from the hearts of all who are suffering and in distress.” But the winter of 1931 was long and grim, and ours will be too if Americans are left to look out for themselves and each other in haphazard fashion.
The Senate proposal is better than nothing, which is what Americans have seen from the federal government for several months. But it’s not nearly enough to stop the bleeding. For that, we need an ambitious agenda of public employment and social programs on par with the New Deal.
And to stave off future grim winters we need to replace our capitalist economic system, which is fundamentally reliant on individual precarity and prone to collective crisis, with a socialist system that is stable and humane.