Unprecedented crisis demands strong medicine from the federal government

Unprecedented crisis demands strong medicine from the federal government

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It’s been more than six months since the novel coronavirus produced its first diagnosed infection in the United States. To say that the nation has botched its response to the crisis would be a massive understatement.

Rather than tackling the virus head-on by implementing a comprehensive national shutdown and marshaling a massive and immediate federal economic intervention capable of sustaining the nation while a huge share of the workforce stayed home, the U.S. dillydallied.

Driven in large part by President Trump’s chaotic and irresponsible actions, the federal government wandered all over the map: First officials denied the threat posed by the virus. Then they initiated partial measures in a tardy fashion. And then they ended the interventions too soon, ceding to the demands of uninformed and desperate groups and individuals calling for a rapid reopening of the economy.

The tragic results of this incompetent response are now obvious in the dire situation that we currently confront: a nation in which the virus continues to rage and spread after having already killed 150,000 people; an economy in which millions remain out of work with little-to-no prospect of returning anytime soon; a new school year in which millions of students and educators remain unable to return to classrooms; and a federal treasury that has expended hundreds of billions of dollars and accumulated vast new quantities of debt all for the purpose of, in effect, treading water.

In many ways, the whole mess is reminiscent of an foolish patient in the healthcare system who fails to practice good self-care, denies his doctor’s diagnosis of his illness, fails to take all the medicine prescribed, rushes back to “business as usual” before he truly recovers and then, ultimately, ends up in the hospital.

That’s where the U.S. is right now: awaiting admission to the public policy ICU and confronting the prospect of undergoing months of new and painful therapy after having frittered away the chance of a much speedier recovery.

What’s more, as is often the case in the world of medical care, it doesn’t matter that large amounts of time and money have already been expended. The situation is getting worse – not better. To weather the current crisis and, ultimately, avoid an even more dire situation, federal law and policy makers must prescribe and inject large doses of strong and costly medicine right away.

As the nonpartisan analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained recently, this means a large and robust new federal relief package that includes, at a minimum, full renewal of several provisions enacted in the spring:

  • the now-expired $600-per-week increase in unemployment benefits till the end of the year;
  • a temporary increase in SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits;
  • the authority for states to provide replacement benefits to children missing out on school meals;
  • the Families First Act’s increase in the share of Medicaid that the federal government funds, and
  • the eviction moratorium in the CARES Act related to federally funded properties.

The package should also included several thus-far-neglected relief measures:

  • aid for immigrant families who have generally been denied access to any public assistance;
  • special aid to very low-income households that have been excluded from stimulus payments and SNAP supplements because of how those programs were implemented;
  • relief for childcare providers;
  • expanding the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit;
  • additional funding to attack homelessness, and
  • a large infusion of aid to state and local governments that are now experiencing big drops in tax revenues.

Unfortunately, as the debate that’s been taking place in Washington in recent days makes clear, neither President Trump nor the Republicans running the Senate yet seem to grasp this simple truth. Rather than going “all in” with an aggressive series of prescriptions to tackle the crisis, both seem to cling to the fanciful idea that the nation can somehow will itself back to physical and economic health with a combination of hope and half measures.

As Policy Watch reported on Saturday, disagreement amongst Republicans forced the Senate to adjourn last Friday without taking action on any new relief package – a move that assured the expiration of items like the $600 unemployment insurance boost.

When word emerged that one possibility under discussion was a renewal of the emergency unemployment benefit at a greatly reduced amount, it was as if doctors were discussing telling a cancer patient to reduce their once-a-week chemotherapy regimen to every other week in order to save money.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer ruefully put it this way “That’s right, America. If you’ve lost your job through no fault of your own, and can’t go back to work because this administration has mismanaged the crisis, Republicans want you to take a pay cut in the middle of this crisis.”

The bottom line: All hope is not yet lost. Their increasingly desultory status in the polls may yet inspire Trump and his remaining allies, like North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, to get on board with the kind of national health prescription/relief package that’s truly necessary. But if past performance is any indication, the chances that they possess the vision to fully embrace such a health regimen and the discipline to see it through to successful completion are very low.