The economic crisis is bad and about to get even worse. And it’s entirely preventable.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and gross domestic product has contracted by over 30 percent. In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a nearly $2 trillion relief package intended to provide income support to U.S. households. While the COVID-19 crisis represents the worst economic devastation in nearly a century, the government’s initial response was robust, rapidly spending half a typical year’s worth of government outlays to help households afford basic necessities, like food and housing, amidst mass unemployment.
Did the CARES Act succeed in reducing hardships, such as food insecurity or an inability to pay for housing? Yes and no. Currently, rates of material hardship are remarkably high. Roughly 20 percent of adults report they are unable to afford enough food. Nearly 10 percent of all adults report failing to make timely rent or mortgage payments. Both of these rates are even higher for households with children, and higher still for households with low incomes; 43 percent of adults in households with incomes under $20,000 report not being able to afford enough food.
These numbers are far too high. But the hardship data also tell us that the CARES Act – despite shortcomings that excluded some households from receiving stimulus checks, and long delays in receiving unemployment assistance in states across the country – has been effective at stabilizing households, and preventing hardship from rising further. Some recent evidence finds that some outcomes like evictions are stabilized at pre-COVID levels or even below.
The reason, of course, is that the CARES Act got money to many American households. Due to expanded eligibility for unemployment assistance, over 30 million American adults are currently receiving assistance, nearly three times the level during the Great Recession. Until the end of July, this included a $600 weekly top-up from the federal government, allowing households to continue to buy food, pay rent, and prop up local economies. In addition, an estimated 85 percent of U.S. households received a stimulus check to help pay essential expenses during the crisis. Rates of hardship are still far too high, but the CARES Act successfully prevented those rates from going even higher, making a huge difference for a lot of families.
The CARES Act shows us that cash-based relief that is broad to universal in scope, and generous particularly with those at the bottom of the income distribution, can do much to meet the material needs of Americans in the midst of the worst economic crisis of our lives. A world without the CARES Act would undoubtedly have been one with widespread suffering unseen since the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Unfortunately, the stage is still set for this scale of economic devastation. Since the passage of the CARES Act, the circumstances have not changed, and in fact, have gotten far worse, with average daily COVID-19 cases more than tripling since late March and any hope of an economic recovery many months away.
The minimum response required from Congress is not complicated: do what you already did, and then do a bit more. Congress must renew the provisions in CARES that successfully stabilized households and propped up local economies, including the $600 a week boost in unemployment assistance, aid to state and local government, and another round of relief checks. In addition, Congress should expand direct payments to all taxpaying residents.
It seems the only error our leaders can make right now would be to do too little. We know the CARES Act did much to help struggling Americans. We also know that more is desperately needed.
Richard Rodems, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow with Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. Patrick Cooney, MPP, is the assistant director of economic mobility at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.