Much of Washington’s attention to the coronavirus outbreak has centered around containing the virus, testing patients and setting up the infrastructure needed to treat the sick. These are worthy endeavors, but the tight restrictions imposed on travel and the widespread closings of universities, schools, government offices, conferences and more, have already harmed untold numbers of workers and business owners.
The accelerating bear market in stocks and bonds suggests that this harm is widely understood and anticipated to worsen in the days and weeks to follow.
The federal government can do more than address the spread of disease and treat the ill. Now is the time for a monumental investment in the healthy workers of the country who have lost their jobs and risk financial ruin, by paying them to help their sick friends, family and neighbors.
Not since the staggering 25 percent unemployment rates of the Great Depression has the need for such a federal infusion of resources been needed. The famed Works Progress Administration spent $198 billion in today’s dollars on a range of infrastructure, institutional, energy and government construction projects, putting 8.5 million of out-of-work Americans into paid employment.
While we can always use new bridges and dams, today’s COVID-19 crisis has its own set of real and present dangers: quarantine spaces, hospital facilities, cleaning services, manufacturing of cleaning and sterilizing equipment and supplies, and the provision of food, medicine and basic staples to both forced quarantined and self-quarantined individuals and their families.
Current federal proposals under consideration include a reduction in the payroll tax (not exactly useful for those who have lost their jobs), stimulus for industries particularly hard hit (cruise companies, hotels, airlines) and paid sick time off. No one should go to work sick and be penalized with a pay cut because of it, but this really only addresses the segment of the population that is not well.
In my home state of Massachusetts, with a population of almost 7 million people, only about 160 have tested positive for COVID-19. But with widespread closures already underway, hundreds of thousands are facing either a steep drop in their income or unemployment.
Rather than let these folks dip into their retirement savings, sell their homes or get evicted from apartments and potentially go broke, it is time to invest the federal government’s largesse in Americans by putting them to work. The now famous meme accompanying the hashtag #FlattenTheCurve suggests that quarantines and shutdowns are the only way to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed by infections.
A massive federal government spending program (along the lines of the funds contemplated in a temporary payroll tax of hundreds of billions of dollars) could be used to pay healthy, unemployed workers to set up and establish quarantine spaces in shuttered locations, build and maintain new hospital and healthcare facilities, join existing cleaning companies in expanding their services and regularity of cleaning, and join existing firms and government agencies that are making the cleaning equipment flying off supermarket shelves. Lastly, the federal government’s investment in healthy employees could help to create an army of workers that can deliver and support those people who are not well enough to leave their homes — to go food shopping for them, pick up their medicines and cut back their hedges.
Much of what could be called the “Healthy Works Initiative” could be accomplished in partnership with existing businesses already set up to do this work, for instance Giant’s Peapod and Stop & Shop’s online delivery services. Without government help, the expanding quarantining of America means these services will face shortages and widespread delays. The federal government could pay new workers to join Peapod, which would help supplement their existing staff.
While hiring and training employees consumes both time and resources, here is where the government can help: federal dollars can go directly to cover those costs, helping firms to grow and expand exponentially, at pace with the predicted growth of COVID-19. Not through handouts or corporate welfare, these funds can be distributed to the approximately a dozen high demand industries that cannot hire fast enough. Doing so would connect those who are suffering from job losses with employers who need them.
An easy way to find these firms is to look at the stock market. Companies that are seeing stock prices rise while others fall are likely the ones in high demand. Let’s bet federal monies on these companies by supplementing their payrolls with public funds to help them serve the country and address the needs of those who are sick.
By directing public money to those healthy workers impacted by job losses accomplishes much of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted with the Works Progress Administration. But this should be done in a strategic and targeted manner so as to address the discrete needs that our fellow sick Americans are facing.
Justin B. Hollander is a professor at Tufts University and the author of seven books on public policy and planning.