Biden, Congress should go big on COVID-19 relief

There’s an ironic similarity between the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief bill and the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts. Both cost $1.9 trillion. 

That’s why it’s difficult to take seriously the complaints by congressional Republicans about the package’s size.

Giving tax breaks to well-off corporations and individuals during an economic expansion is OK, but spending money in the midst of an economic crisis is fiscally irresponsible?

It’s not just hypocritical. It’s bad economics. It’s also a textbook example of the maxim that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The sluggishness of the recovery after the 2008-10 Great Recession was largely due to the prolonged downturn in state and local government spending. Unlike the federal government, states and cities cannot run deficits when tax receipts go down sharply and recover slowly.

They were forced to lay off hundreds of thousands of employees, including an estimated 50,000 front-line personnel in public health departments. Most were never called back because the new Obama administration didn’t address state shortfalls in its futile attempt to attract Republican votes to its stimulus package.

Then Vice President Joe Biden and his economic advisers, many of whom have joined him in the current White House, learned from that experience. That’s why they’re pushing for adequately sized relief on all fronts, including an additional $350 billion for the state and local governments that are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. 

Their health departments are going to need that help in the months ahead if the U.S. is going to have a successful vaccine rollout. Setting up emergency vaccination sites, hiring temporary personnel, conducting wider testing, and expanding contact tracing costs a lot of money.

Now that mutant COVID-19 variants are beginning to spread to some areas of the country, putting in place an adequate testing and tracing infrastructure will be even more important than it was last spring, when the Trump administration failed to make it a priority. Given the gaps in public acceptance of social distancing and masking guidelines, those strains will soon be everywhere. States and cities must have the resources needed to immediately identify and control those outbreaks, especially if the new vaccines prove less effective against the mutant strains.

The Biden plan includes an extra $160 billion for those tasks, three times the amount contained in the Republican alternative package offered in late January. It was heartening to see the administration’s plan adds 100,000 community health workers to conduct contact tracing.

One can only hope that Congress later passes legislation that will make this public health corps permanent. As I noted last June, such a corps could, in non-pandemic times, serve as front-line community outreach workers, deployed in every corner of the country to help address the obesity, mental health, opioid and substance abuse epidemics.

They’d also be immediately available when the next pandemic hits, as it inevitably will in our warming, crowded and globalized world. We’ve paid a tremendous price in lives and economic dislocation due to the previous administration’s callous disregard of pandemic preparedness. Let’s not make that mistake again.

The Republican’s scaled down bill also rejects many of the income support programs being pushed by the Biden administration. They range from larger one-time checks to more generous unemployment insurance to a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The GOP also takes a niggling approach to increased food and rent assistance.

Here’s the reality. During the “boom” that preceded the pandemic, demand for basic social services was soaring because so many jobs failed to pay a living wage. Poverty is the ultimate social determinant of health. It’s the reason why impoverished communities suffered the most during the pandemic.
Improving their economic prospects is also part of pandemic relief.

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