McGinnis: Will the COVID-19 Stimulus Package be Enough?

Emerson McGinnis, Staff Columnist

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act is the largest stimulus package ever passed in the U.S. The package will cost up to $2 trillion, with provisions accounting for five main sectors of the economy, but many say it still won’t be enough.

Broken down, 30 percent of the package will go towards individuals and families, 25 percent for big businesses, 19 percent for small businesses, 17 percent for state and local government and 9 percent for public services. 

A large chunk of that 30 percent for individuals and families ($300 billion in fact) will go towards direct cash payments for American taxpayers. Americans who filed between $75,000 and $99,000 on their income taxes in 2018 or 2019 will receive a check up to $1,200. Unfortunately for many Americans, the payment is likely going to be too little too late. The check will be a one-time payment, and may not be available until April 13 at the earliest. And as for those Americans who do not have direct deposit set up for their tax refunds, they will not receive their respective checks until after May 4. This means many Americans won’t be able to pay rent this month, as $1,200 doesn’t cover the median cost of rent in most parts of the country. 

While the bill does include provisions preventing landlords from evicting renters and from accruing late fees on rent payments, this does not apply to landlords whose mortgages are not backed or owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or other federal entities. What is needed now is a mortgage freeze on all mortgages. This would allow landlords to suspend rent payments for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis while avoiding defaulting on their mortgages due to the loss of money. 

The stimulus package also does not make it illegal for utility providers to cut off service, allowing water, electricity and gas to be shut off to homes that are unable to pay their utility bills due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Despite the stimulus bill not doing enough, it is still a step in the right direction and more social assistance than the U.S. government has ever supported before. The package will allow millions of Americans to apply for unemployment who would not have previously qualified, including furloughed workers and part-time workers. It will increase weekly unemployment benefits by $600 in addition to extending these benefits by 13 weeks. 

However, when you consider that these “revolutionary” and temporary changes to the unemployment benefits were already the norm in many European countries—where benefits have still increased during the pandemic—they no longer seem quite so amazing. Denmark, for example, is paying the salaries of 75 percent of all private sector employees to encourage businesses to not lay off workers. For clarification, the CARES Act does include provisions to encourage businesses to avoid laying off workers, but with loans and potential loan forgiveness to small businesses who keep employees on the payroll throughout the crisis, this may also be too little too late. 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week alone, and in March around 10 million Americans lost their jobs. Those provisions for businesses to keep on employees aren’t going to be able to help those who have already laid-off employees. 

Another flaw—and a fatal one at that—is the Act’s failure to properly address healthcare. Yes, there is a provision providing $100 billion to hospitals to help reduce the impact of forgoing elective surgeries that generally make up a substantial portion of hospital income in order to prioritize COVID-19 care. And yes, the bill prevents scheduled reductions in Medicare payments and maintains (under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) health insurance program) that the 10 million Americans who filed for unemployment last month will retain their job-based health insurance. 

But, CARES does not address the 27.5 million people who were completely uninsured in 2018. The act leaves those millions of Americans—as well as millions more who are under-insured—high and dry if they are affected by the virus, making surviving the COVID-19 crisis that much more of a class issue.

In short, while the CARES Act does more for the American people than the U.S. government has ever done before with a stimulus package, it likely won’t be enough to prevent an economic depression without significant debt forgiveness later on down the road, nor will it adequately provide for the American working class.