Congress needs to authorize cash payments to every adult and child in the United States, and it needs to do so right now.
There are two reasons for this. One is the severe economic threat posed by the coronavirus, which is already putting Americans out of work. Prominent economists are saying the crisis is faster-moving and more alarming than the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the crisis it sparked in 2008. That crisis needed an immediate stimulus, and even the roughly $1 trillion total appropriated in 2008-2009 was not enough.
Direct cash payments are a better policy than other suggestions for stimulus, like payroll tax cuts or additional quantitative easing from the Federal Reserve. But the Fed is working on interest rates that are already close to zero. And payroll tax cuts only benefit working people, excluding hourly workers in restaurants, gyms, and other businesses that are rapidly shutting down entirely due to coronavirus.
The employed people who do benefit from a payroll tax cut are, by definition, higher income than the unemployed, less likely to spend the cash, and more likely to save it in an account where it does nothing for the economy. Direct cash payments put money directly in the hands of poor and unemployed people likely to spend it.
The second reason is humanitarian. To some extent, we need a slowdown in economic activity for public health reasons. We need the economic activity generated by people buying in-person tickets to sporting events or movie theaters or yoga classes to cease, to prevent disease transmission.
But we also need the millions of people employed in in-person service jobs, and the millions of unemployed people (including those unemployed due to layoffs in this crisis), to have the food, shelter, and medical care they need to survive and stay healthy amidst the crisis. They need money, and the easiest way to get it to them is to send checks.
This is not a radical idea, and it is not even a liberal idea. Fellows at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, including former Trump FDA director Scott Gottlieb, have called for direct cash subsidies. Former Federal Reserve staff economist Claudia Sahm (now at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth) has been pushing for cash payments to automatically go out during economic crises like this, a policy known as the “Sahm rule.” You can hear all about it on Vox’s The Weeds podcast:
Jason Furman, who served as President Obama’s chief economist, told Vox’s Ezra Klein that the amount of cash we need to give is increasing rapidly: “A week ago, I thought $1,000 per adult, $500 per child. Now I’d double or triple that. Get them the check within three months, or less. And make clear that if the economy is in bad shape at the end of the year we’ll do it again, and keep doing it.”
The biggest mistake that Congress could make right now is going too small, or wasting time debating the targeting or size of the cash injection. Go big, and keep it simple. Send checks to everyone with a Social Security Number ($500 would be a good amount), now. Send them every month until the crisis has passed.
Do not try to means-test or prevent payments from going to rich people; if we’re worried money going to people who don’t need it, just tax the rich later when we’ve survived the outbreak. If you must means-test, this plan endorsed by Reps. Tim Ryan and Ro Khanna strikes a good balance.
Now is not the time for complicated policy design. Now is the time for cash in people’s pockets, immediately.
But cash is an issue where economists of all stripes are speaking with one voice. We need cash. We need it now. Congress should appropriate it immediately. To quote Sahm, “WE KNOW WHAT TO DO. DO IT NOW.”
Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.
Future Perfect is funded in part by individual contributions, grants, and sponsorships. Learn more here.