The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to recognize, once again and with fresh eyes, that the American project has been living paycheck to paycheck. If that money suddenly stops flowing, in particular, to small businesses, manufacturers, and the service and hospitality industries, the entire country would go into arrest. And as is the nature of capitalism, economic inequality would go on steroids.
Unfortunately, the very thing we’ve been told will help will likely only make things worse in the long term. The House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, just passed the Senate’s $2 trillion relief bill, the largest such package in American history. However, we should not mistake ambition for competency, nor extravagance for generosity. Rather than push for a better bill and, yes, taking the risk of accelerating economic decline, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi settled on this bit of incremental progress. But at what price? This is legislation that is awesome in its inadequacy to meet the needs of the moment. Even as it jump-starts industry, the bill promises to exacerbate wealth gaps along racial lines while repeating mistakes that the nation should have learned from.
The legislation ignores quite a bit of American reality, old and new. The 2008 bank bailout gave a lot of money to very few people, relatively, when it was lower-income folks losing their jobs and homes. If low-wage workers don’t live in Washington, D.C., or one of the 23 states that increased their minimum wage last year, wage growth — thanks in part to successful union-busting efforts by Republicans — hasn’t kept pace with exploding salaries and stock profits of the top 1 percent. However, despite this coronavirus relief bill providing about $350 billion each for health care needs and for small businesses, large corporations and their shareholders will have the most security. And it repeats the key mistake of the 2008 bill: placing more money in the hands of the elite few rather than prioritizing the many Americans who are in most desperate need.