The coronavirus economic policy response must include relief and redistribution now and major demand stimulus once the crisis passes

Key takeaways

Sen. Mitch McConnell’s bill would make the U.S. economic response as far behind as the public health response, relative to international best practice.

An economic relief package must include:

  • Maximization of the income that can be delivered through existing social insurance and safety net programs during the lockdown and its aftermath
  • Substantial aid to state and local governments
  • Bailouts of industries’ workers, not shareholders, creditors, or senior management
  • Direct cash payments to households
  • Conditions-based triggers that keep aid flowing

The U.S. economy will contract enormously in the coming months. Economic activity will fall more sharply than in perhaps any other period in modern history, and tens of millions of U.S. employees will be forced to stop working. Unlike previous economic shocks, we want this contraction to happen—it is a byproduct of the necessary public health response to the coronavirus.

But even as major parts of the economy shut down completely, people will need resources to live, resources they generally get by working. The United States is a rich enough country to provide these, even in the face of a prolonged economic shutdown. We even have obvious policy levers that can transfer huge amounts of resources to those out of work through no fault of their own: the existing social insurance and safety net programs that have been built exactly for this purpose—if not necessarily envisioned to work on this scale.

These existing social insurance and safety net programs can be supplemented with ad hoc emergency measures to support the vast majority of U.S. families through the social distancing measures of the epidemic. These same measures can also ensure that families emerge from the lockdown with finances largely intact. When the all-clear is sounded, a major fiscal stimulus to boost demand should be ready to rev up the economy as fast as possible. The quicker that firms feel pressure to supply goods and services to customers, the more likely they will be to reestablish the employment relationships they had with workers before the crisis hit, and the less economic scarring will occur.

Concretely, the measures an economic relief and recovery package should include are:

  • Maximization of the income that can be delivered through existing social insurance and safety net programs during the lockdown and its aftermath. The unemployment insurance (UI) system is a relief pipeline that could deliver vast amounts of needed aid to families during this time, but policy changes are needed to maximize this delivery during the pandemic, and the changes under consideration now are not enough. Replacement rates (including maximum benefits) for UI benefits should be significantly increased. During the lockdown period, there is no serious reason why replacement rates shouldn’t be 100%, and there’s no reason why the maximum benefit should be substantially less than $5,000 per week. These parameters can be slowly but steadily reduced after the public health crisis passes, but they should still end up far above the too-stingy parameters that prevail today. Further, provisions for waiting periods and job search requirements as conditions for benefit receipt should be abolished during the lockdown period. We should also take this time to advance needed reforms that will be sustained beyond this crisis. Similarly, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should see an emergency increase in benefits paid in cash.
  • Substantial aid to state and local governments. These governments stand on the front lines of the public health response and must be empowered to spend as freely as public health demands. Further, the lockdown in economic activity will see state and local revenues plummet. Balanced budget rules mean that in coming months there will be significant downward pressure placed on spending as revenues crater. This will make state and local governments a pronounced drag on economywide demand and recovery once the public health all-clear is sounded. The federal government already gives roughly $700 billion in aid to state and local governments every year. These existing channels should just be multiplied upward, with the scale of this aid rising by as much as 50% for the coming year.
  • “Industry bailouts” that are reconceived as “bailouts of industries’ payrolls.” What should be bailed out in rescue measures are not shareholders’ wealth, creditors’ debt, or senior management salaries, but the jobs and wages of rank-and-file workers. The governments of the United Kingdom and Denmark, for example, are paying 80% and 75%, respectively, of the costs of payroll for furloughed workers. Firms must pay the rest but are also given zero-interest, no-penalty loans for extended periods to meet these costs and other operating costs. The virtue of this approach is that it preserves employer/employee relationships and doesn’t require job search and matching once the all-clear is sounded. To the degree that fiscal rescue money funneled through existing firms to workers can achieve this same goal in the United States, it should be encouraged. The institutional structure that would let this happen in the United States is largely the furlough and short-time compensation provisions in some states’ UI systems. These should be maximized in those states. For targeted ad hoc industry rescues, the nonnegotiable principle should be that bailout money is meant for workers, not shareholders, creditors or senior management, period. For example, firms that receive taxpayer dollars must not be permitted to lay off workers, outsource or offshore work, cut workers’ pay or benefits, or reopen union contracts.
  • Direct cash payments to households. We’re entering this unique crisis with the frayed social insurance and safety net systems we actually have rather than the robust and compassionate systems we wish we had. This means that we need a wraparound insurance policy to make sure that all households get at least some relief and that low-wage workers receive enough to live on during the enforced economic shutdown. This is where the role of direct cash payments comes in. Substantial cash payments directly to households provide insurance that everybody receives at least some aid, and these payments can help supercharge the recovery in economywide spending and demand once social distancing has ended. These payments should not be conditioned on a minimum income level, and there is little need for them to be phased out at higher incomes, particularly if it delays their receipt.
  • Conditions-based triggers that keep aid flowing. Crucially, all of the recovery measures must continue to operate as long as conditions warrant. Cash payments should not be one-time, social insurance expansions should not be time-limited, and aid to state and local governments should not dry up when conditions remain weak. It should not be hard to specify economic triggers that need to be engaged before aid is reduced. It will be tempting to make these triggers based on unemployment. However, the unique disruptions caused by the lockdown and rebooting of economic activity that follows could make the unemployment rate behave somewhat strangely. For example, many workers who actually want a job six months down the line may not satisfy the requirements for “active job search” to be officially counted as unemployed, particularly if essentially their entire economic sector has disappeared in the past half year. Better triggers will focus on employment rates and aggregate measures of hours worked in the economy.

The human toll of the economic shock the coronavirus ends up inflicting on the U.S. economy is entirely dependent on our policy response. If our response is smart and ambitious and driven by desire to minimize human suffering, we can shield the vast majority of households from the vast majority of potential damage. But if the response is small-minded, stingy, and hamstrung by ideological opportunism and jockeying for advantage by politically connected industries and sectors, the economic damage will be staggering.

Sen. Mitch McConnell’s bill that was released this past weekend would put the U.S. as far behind in our economic response to the coronavirus as we’ve been so far in our public health response, relative to international best practice. None of the measures have good triggers to keep aid flowing if conditions warrant. The UI changes are decent but on far too small a scale. The cash payment is cheap and one-time only. There is no serious aid to state and local governments. There is no large-scale plan to get protective equipment to frontline workers. The vast majority of the money allocated is a slush fund for the Trump administration to reward favored sectors. It is a profound betrayal of what U.S. families need from their government in the face of this crisis. Our response to the economic shock of the virus needs to be much better than this.