The United States has never experienced anything quite like the economic disjuncture caused by the spread of the new coronavirus. Airports and malls are empty. Restaurants and movie theaters are closed. The collapse is happening so fast it isn’t visible yet in standard data like the unemployment rate, but startling facts are piling up.
OpenTable, a restaurant reservation website, reported 56 percent fewer people ate at its member restaurants on Monday compared with the same day last year. In a poll, almost one-fifth of the respondents said they were working fewer hours or had lost their jobs.
The economy tends to slide into recession. This is free-fall.
The crisis requires an urgent response from the federal government, and the most important step is simple: Send $2,000 to every American, immediately.
People need money to pay the rent, the mortgage, the utility bills. Handing out money also would encourage consumer spending, which is the primary form of economic activity in this country. And that, in turn, would help to keep small businesses open, and workers employed.
Politicians are coalescing rapidly around the benefits of handing out money. Sen. Mitt Romney proposed Monday to send everyone $1,000. A group of six senators upped the ante Tuesday, proposing to send everyone an initial $2,000 and as much as $4,500 by the end of the year.
The first round of payments would cost about $660 billion, equal to roughly 3 percent of the economy’s total output last year — big enough to offset the severe drop in economic activity that forecasters are predicting in the second quarter of the year. The government would then make additional quarterly payments until the unemployment rate subsided.
The Trump administration, which tried unsuccessfully to rally support for a payroll tax cut — a plan that, among other problems, would help only people with jobs — said Tuesday it was also willing to support cash payments.
One downside to blanket distribution is some people don’t need the money. There are sensible ways of correcting for this. The government could require people to pay income taxes on the money: Those with higher incomes would pay higher rates and, as an added benefit, some of the money would flow to state and local governments, which are likely to experience sharp drops in revenue. Alternatively, the federal government could use a sliding scale: less money for those with higher incomes. But there are benefits to universal distribution, too. The government can’t anticipate who will lose their jobs.
A drawback to sending money is it takes time. Congress authorized a similar plan in February 2008 but the first checks didn’t go out for months, in late April. But this, too, can be mitigated by delivering more aid through existing safety net programs.
Giving money to people is just one component of an effective fiscal response to the pandemic. The first step, underway but far from complete, is protecting public health. The failures of the federal response to the widening outbreak, particularly the continuing absence of large-scale testing, are exacerbating the economic damage.
Congress approved an initial dose of $8.3 billion for public health measures, including money for masks and other supplies; for medical research; and for state and local public health departments. A second bill, which passed the House and is awaiting Senate consideration, would expand spending on safety net programs, including unemployment insurance, health insurance and food stamps.
It also includes a deeply flawed plan to require some employers to offer paid sick leave to workers, at government expense. That program excludes employers with more than 500 employees, a mind-boggling loophole that encompasses 54 percent of the private work force. The Senate would be wise to rewrite the legislation to provide 10 days of emergency paid sick leave to all workers at federal expense.
The second step is containing the economic damage, which includes sending out checks to people. The government also needs to help businesses.
This is an opportune moment for Congress to fund an ambitious program of infrastructure works, taking advantage of low borrowing costs to finance repairs to roads and bridges and mass transportation systems; the overhaul of the nation’s electric grid, to accommodate environmentally friendly power generation; the removal of lead pipes from municipal water systems.
The federal response to the 2008 economic crisis was remarkably successful in preserving American corporations. That was critical, but it was not good enough. This time, the government needs to do a better job of helping individual Americans to weather the crisis.