Emerging from the COVID-19 crisis as a better and more resilient society

Emerging from the COVID-19 crisis as a better and more resilient society
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Our nation is facing a once-in-a-generation challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis. These events will define us for decades to come, and we can only hope that we will be defined by the wisdom and courage of our response rather than by the failures that led us to this tragic place. It lies with us now to make policy choices that shape our recovery so that we emerge a better and more resilient nation. We should build, deliberately, on the temporary measures of the recently passed CARES Act to strengthen our safety net and make necessary human capital investments.

The temporary closing of businesses, elementary schools and universities, alongside the continued work of our nation’s essential workers – many of them low-wage workers – has made widespread economic insecurity and our society’s stark inequities even more obvious and galling. Millions of workers live paycheck to paycheck. Mile-long lines for food bank hand-outs are a stark image of economic insecurity. Just a couple weeks of reduced pay renders so many people unable to put food on the table. The longer this crisis goes on, the more acute and widespread the underlying household economic insecurity will be.

It was an impressive and laudable bipartisan act of Congress to pass the CARES Act so quickly, injecting $2.2 trillion into the economy, including $290 billion in direct economic impact payments to individuals and couples with annual earnings of less than $99,000 and $198,000, respectively, as well as $260 billion in expanded unemployment insurance benefits to laid-off workers. As we look ahead to the next set of bills and policies, we must deliberately spend and invest in ways that will strengthen our capitalist economy and expand economic security.

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Our long-term response to this period of crisis should include a bipartisan commitment to a robust system of supplemental income support, especially for food, housing and health care. The ideal system would include well-funded programs that provide assistance during regular times of need, and automatically expand to meet increased need during economic downturns. The notion that people should save substantially more is unrealistic for many Americans. Low-wage workers, especially those with families to care for, cannot reasonably be expected to have nestled away sufficient precautionary savings to weather anything like this harsh economic storm.

The SNAP program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) provides millions of individuals and families with dedicated cash benefits to purchase food. But ongoing efforts by some policymakers to make these benefits contingent on work hours would deliberately undermine the program’s role in helping people who lose their jobs or have their hours reduced. Let us commit once and for all to maintain the counter-cyclical nature of this program. When people lose their jobs or have their hours reduced, SNAP caseloads should increase. That’s a feature of a well-designed safety net program, not a bug.

The main federal program of low-income rental assistance is perennially underfunded, and families wait years to qualify for a coveted housing choice voucher. An estimated 2 million people, including children, are evicted from their homes each year. This month, nearly one third of American renters didn’t pay their rent. Current restrictions on eviction are stopgap measures, but not a solution. If housing assistance were an entitlement program – like SNAP or Medicaid or Unemployment Insurance – then government assistance would be available to all qualifying individuals and families, not just a lucky subset. In a rich nation like ours, it is inexcusable that so many of our fellow citizens live with the constant threat of housing insecurity. Let this crisis be the moment we right this wrong.

The fact that nearly half of individuals in this country rely on their employer for health insurance means that losing one’s job often poses a major threat to one’s ability to access affordable health care. Never has that link been more problematic than during this public health crisis. We must provide for an intentional backstop, so that a well-considered option is in place for people who suddenly lose their job and associated health insurance.

Safety net programs in these three spheres should be permanently bolstered and strengthened. That would provide a lifeline to individuals perpetually on the brink of economic despair and interject resilience into our society, so that a sudden shock doesn’t so precipitously throw so many into economic desperation. But there is more that we must do to expand economic security and bolster resilience.

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Let us now, finally, address the digital divide in this country. The forced and rapid move to distance learning in schools and telework has highlighted how appalling it is that nearly 30 percent of U.S. households lack broadband internet access. A federal investment in universal broadband coverage and expanded 5G networks would help individuals and enhance the overall productivity of our workforce and resilience of our economy. 

Our lasting policy response to this crisis should also involve a greater public commitment of resources to institutions of higher education. Investing in human capital is one of the most important things we can do to bolster both individual level economic security and the resilience of our economy. Yet our public colleges and universities face reduced budgets in the wake of this pandemic and economic slowdown. The CARES Act provides $14 billion to colleges and universities, with the requirement that institutions use at least half of these funds to provide emergency financial aid grants to students for expenses related to the current crisis. This is critical support during this time of immediate need, but it is not enough.

This crisis is a tragedy but also an opportunity to rebuild our society on a surer foundation. Let us shift our economic policies and spending priorities so that we don’t just survive this crisis but emerge with a system that delivers economic security and a better economic system for all.

Melissa S. Kearney is director of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group and a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. She has published numerous articles on topics related to U.S. social policy, poverty and inequality. Follow her on Twitter @kearney_melissa.