Editorial: Second stimulus is a beginning, nothing more
Sixth in an Opinion series
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
To be sure, the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill, aka the second stimulus, will help millions of Americans in their hour of need. The unemployed get a lifeline in extended jobless and increased food stamp benefits. There's $54 billion for K-12 schools and $23 billion for colleges and universities, and there are funds to expand access to broadband and build out infrastructure in rural areas.
The agreement has $285 billion for additional Paycheck Protection Program loans, which has kept many small businesses and their employees afloat. The plan includes nearly $70 billion for public health measures, including buying and distributing the COVID-19 vaccines, and $10 billion to keep child care providers open and help families with tuition.
The bill slightly extends moratoriums on renter evictions and on homeowner foreclosures on mortgages backed by the FHA.
Oh, and millions of Americans will get a one-time, $600 boost in their personal incomes.
What's fundamentally wrong here is that none of this is remotely enough.
Eleven weeks of enhanced unemployment benefits -- at $300, it's half of what the first stimulus offered -- means the aid will end long before the nation can begin a substantial economic recovery, which is unlikely until most Americans are vaccinated against COVID. That won't be before summer, especially if distribution problems continue. Economists say the U.S. is down about 10 million jobs from pre-COVID levels.
And where's the help for small government? Towns and cities are scrambling to keep police and firefighters on duty and pay their share of the pensions, all while the sales taxes they depend on are shrinking. This is critical for the well-being of our communities, but was jettisoned early in negotiations.
Money for schools won't come close to compensating them for expensive adjustments they had to make to accommodate remote learning.
Let's face it, the $600 one-time payments for adults (and another $600 for each child) is almost a pointless token for people who are struggling. And for people who don't really need the money, it's not enough to encourage those big-ticket purchases that will help boost the economy -- they'll bank it and forget it.
Moreover, the pork stuffed into this bill is an embarrassment. Why can't lawmakers just do something good for the American people instead of having to include a multibillion-dollar tax break for business meals; a study of the 1908 Springfield, Illinois, race riot; and $86 million for assistance to Cambodia and $130 million to Nepal, $25 million for Pakistan democracy and gender programs, and much more?
We're not casting aspersions on whether these expenses have merit, we're merely saying they don't belong here. Unfortunately, this is what routinely happens to a populist bill -- lawmakers take advantage of a crisis to get parochial political priorities they could never pass outright on their own -- and inevitably it detracts from the main objective at hand. Considering the depth and impact of this pandemic, that is a deep disappointment and a serious shortcoming.
The Biden Administration has a lot of work ahead of it to bring the U.S. out of the serious economic downturn the nation is immersed in. The good news is that the huge government borrowing that was done to fund the first stimulus didn't result in higher inflation, and interest rates stayed low. That holds out hope for this new federal spending, and more that seems certain to be required.
At worst, politics will prevent a full-throated economic recovery. At best, facts, not politics, will prevail, in 2021 and beyond. So far, our leaders have not been steering us toward the latter target.