As ex­pi­ra­tion nears, Congress must ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment aid

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

As painful as the COVID-19 re­ces­sion has been for many Amer­i­cans, the abrupt down­turn could have been far worse. And per­haps the smartest ac­tion taken by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment so far has been those ex­panded un­em­ploy­ment payments made pos­si­ble by the Coro­n­avirus Aid, Re­sponse and Eco­nomic Se­cu­rity (CARES) Act. In Mary­land, for ex­am­ple, the pay­out has been ex­cep­tional (if not al­ways eas­ily nav­i­gated by ap­pli­cants). State of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that from March 9 to June 20, un­em­ploy­ment payments in Mary­land to­taled $3.3 bil­lion of which $1.3 bil­lion comes from Pan­demic Un­em­ploy­ment As­sis­tance for folks who wouldn’t have oth­er­wise qual­i­fied for any form of as­sis­tance. An­other $46 million went to peo­ple who had al­ready ex­hausted their nor­mal 13 weeks of ben­e­fits.

That’s a ma­jor rea­son why the record high un­em­ploy­ment rate in the United States of 13.3% doesn’t re­ally feel quite as dis­as­trous as that num­ber sug­gests. Fam­i­lies have been kept afloat, land­lords have been kept in busi­ness, gro­cery stores and other es­sen­tial mer­chants are do­ing a brisk trade, and even the stock mar­ket, while an im­per­fect eco­nomic barom­e­ter, is roughly where it was val­ued last Au­gust. In other words, of all the fail­ings of Washington dur­ing the pan­demic from its ini­tial lax­ity to its bizarrely mud­dled mes­sage on test­ing and mask-wear­ing, the CARES Act, and par­tic­u­larly those $600 un­em­ploy­ment booster checks, have been one thing that Democrats and Repub­li­cans did not get wrong.

Now, here’s the problem: The bot­tom of that is about to fall away.

First up are those $600 ex­panded ben­e­fits checks. They are due to stop com­ing on July 26 at the lat­est. And while clearly that ben­e­fit can’t be main­tained for­ever (at least not with­out the means to pay for it), end­ing them in a month looks like a ter­ri­ble idea. It would be one thing if the coro­n­avirus pan­demic were def­i­nitely over or at least con­tained, but the lat­est num­bers are alarm­ing. Al­though Mary­land has seen many of its key mea­sures fall, other states are go­ing in ex­actly the op­po­site di­rec­tion. The num­ber of new cases over­all has been ris­ing since mid-June with states like Ari­zona, Florida and Texas be­com­ing the lat­est hot spots. And it’s not just new cases, pos­i­tiv­ity rates and hos­pi­tal­iza­tions are up as well. And that’s caused some states to im­pose new re­stric­tions to im­prove so­cial dis­tanc­ing. Yet, even with those or­ders, some project U.S. COVID-19 deaths will rise sig­nif­i­cantly in July.

That wors­en­ing health out­look com­bined with the loss of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance in­come for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans could prove a dis­as­trous 1-2 punch. Given that re­al­ity, Congress ought to be mov­ing for­ward with some sort of ex­ten­sion to re­as­sure Amer­i­cans (and the mar­kets) that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment still has the econ­omy’s back. Yet many Repub­li­cans con­tinue to moan and groan about how those $600 payments are a dis­in­cen­tive to work. As if ev­ery­thing would be peachy if the fed­eral gov­ern­ment would sim­ply be a bit more heart­less to those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. This is ab­surd. Just look around. The job mar­ket re­mains hor­ri­ble. It’s not lazi­ness that’s keep­ing hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try work­ers at home, to name one glar­ing ex­am­ple, it’s the way their in­dus­try is in ruin at the mo­ment.

The harm that abrupt end in un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits hasn’t been lost on the Fed­eral Re­serve which last week is­sued a re­port that in­cluded a warn­ing of the hard­ships ahead for mil­lions of fam­i­lies once the sup­ple­men­tal un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits ex­pire. It noted, for ex­am­ple, that low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties (such as large swaths of Bal­ti­more) and mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties (such as Bal­ti­more’s) have al­ready been hit hard­est by the pan­demic. Yet it’s the way the out­break is grow­ing worse in red states like Texas and Ge­or­gia as well as the swing state of Florida that may yet get the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s at­ten­tion.

No doubt there are some in­di­vid­u­als who are, in fact, bring­ing home more money with more gen­er­ous un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits than they did when they were work­ing. But so what? This isn’t for­ever, and we don’t hear Congress mak­ing the same com­plaints about far greater (and usu­ally more per­ma­nent) wind­falls when it hands out lu­cra­tive tax avoid­ance schemes to bil­lion­aires. And un­like the super rich, the work­ing poor (no mat­ter their cur­rent job sta­tus) can be re­lied to spend those dol­lars right back in their com­mu­ni­ties by spend­ing them on such things as the util­ity bill or per­haps food, all of which cre­ate mil­lions of jobs. Ex­panded un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits rep­re­sent a safety net that’s work­ing right now. July is not the month to drop it.

CARO­LINE BREHMAN/ROLL CALL

Sens. Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, left, and Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, speak dur­ing a Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee hear­ing June 9 about un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance and the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

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