Monday, August 03, 2020

The Panic-Demic Has Entered Its No Lives Matter Phase


theintercept |  Our rulers did demonstrate a spasm of rationality with the passage of the CARES Act in March. It was partly a cash-grab by big business but did get lots of people a $1,200 check and provided an extra $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits on top of state benefits.

Without these benefits, the 30 million people who lost their jobs in March and April would have already plummeted into the void. And because everyone’s spending is someone else’s income, as they fell they would have grabbed onto tens of millions more and taken them down as well.

And in fact, this downward spiral began to happen in mid-March. As the danger of Covid-19 became clear, consumer spending dropped by an astonishing 30 percent in a matter of days. But as soon as the government cash started flowing, spending began to recover, and it’s now more than 90 percent of normal. In poorer zip codes, it’s returned to almost 100 percent.

This has kept the lives of tens of millions of Americans merely bad, rather than totally impossible. But the supplemental unemployment benefits expire at the end of July. The GOP opening bid is to extend them but to cut the amount from $600 to $200. The reason, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin explained in the Oval Office, is to prevent malingering: “We’re going to make sure that we don’t pay people more money to stay home than go to work.” In addition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the Republican “red line” in negotiations is making it essentially impossible for employees to sue employers on the grounds that their workplace is failing to protect them from Covid-19. Furthermore, under the proposed new rules, employers and even the Trump Justice Department would find it easy to countersue workers for bringing a coronavirus lawsuit.

Rationally, of course, this makes no sense. For most of the unemployed, there aren’t any jobs to go back to, and won’t be until the pandemic is under control. If their unemployment benefits are cut, people without jobs will desperately cut back on spending, leading to more unemployment, which will lead to less spending, and so on. The process will be accelerated as states and cities, which until now have attempted to avoid slashing payrolls in hopes that the federal government would rescue them, finally do so.

This may plausibly lead to basic material deprivation — true hunger and homelessness — on a scale few alive today have ever seen. According to the Census Bureau, the number of America’s 249 million households reporting that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat has already jumped from 22.5 million earlier this year to 29.3 million in July. With Republicans opposing an expansion of food stamp funding, as well as the renewal of the CARES Act supplemental food program for children, that is likely just the beginning.

Then there’s housing. The CARES Act contained a federal ban on evictions that covered about 30 percent of U.S. rental units. That ban just ended, as have most state-level bans. Forty million people could potentially lose their homes in the next several months. In states like Florida, Texas, and New York, half of the tenants will shortly be unable to make the rent.