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Far from perfect, but more relief aid to individuals welcomed

This is another in a series of editorials taking a closer examination into aspects of the massive coronavirus relief bill, including what works, what may not and what still may be needed. Today's editorial examines relief aid targeted to individuals.

Perhaps in learning lessons from the relief efforts implemented in response to the Great Recession of 2008-2009, which bailed out corporations and financial institutions but did comparatively little for average Americans damaged by the economic collapse, Congress did a better job this time.

“This time” was the approval of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Its intent is to mitigate the economic damage caused by shutting down much of the U.S. economy to create the social distancing necessary to inhibit the spread of the new and highly contagious COVID-19 virus.

For individuals there are two provisions that stand out.

The first is the $1,200 payments that will be issued to most adults, and the $500 for dependent children. The payments are phased out for individuals making more than $75,000 annually or households making more than $150,000. We would have preferred Congress take a bit more time, perhaps enacting this part of the relief package as a separate bill, to develop an approach that more carefully targeted the relief where most needed. Aid directed at the most in need is usually money spent, which the economy needs.

But Congress opted to act fast, with a simpler formula, hoping for quick economic stimulus. But it won’t stimulate the businesses that will most need help, those that were forced to close; they’re still closed.

Instead, those most in need could have the hardest time accessing their payments. Americans who filed a tax return can expect to see their payments deposited in the bank accounts they used for their rebates or from which payment to the government was authorized.

However, an estimated 15 million Americans did not make enough to file tax returns, many of them seniors or people with disabilities. Initially, they were instructed to file a simple tax return. Facing criticism, the administration smartly backed off a couple of days ago, announcing that Social Security recipients who are not typically required to file a tax return will receive their payment directly to their bank accounts.

Yet also facing a challenge in getting their money, and certainly much in need of it, are transient Americans living on the economic margins, who may not have a permanent address or bank account. The Trump administration, working with the states, should also explore ways to get the payments to those citizens.

Better targeted is the $600 per week that will be added to every unemployment check for up to four months. That gets money where it is needed, to those hit hardest by the government-mandated shutdowns. In Connecticut, that means the average unemployment recipient can expect to receive $1,000 rather than $400.

A few Senate Republicans complained that will result in some workers, for that limited time, receiving more in unemployment then came by way of their pay checks. So what? It will mean more money to pay bills, meet loan obligations and hang on until work returns. Those are good things, for the individuals and the economy.

The problem may be how quickly workers will receive that additional money, or even base unemployment payments. The surge in unemployment compensation requests has been unprecedented. In Connecticut, 220,000 claims have been made in the last two weeks, more than in a typical year. Nationally, 10 million unemployment claims have been filed since the shutdowns began, and unemployment is headed for double digits.

A spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Labor said 80,000 claims have been processed, but due to the volume, some workers may have to wait five weeks for payment.

As for the $600 bonus payments, no one is venturing a guess when those arrive. When paid, it will be retroactive. The relief act also for the first time, during this emergency, is directing unemployment benefits to the contractors and self-employed who don’t normally qualify. This is the right move. It should be a permanent one. But it places further strain on an overburdened system.

Both the state and federal labor departments work with grossly outdated computer systems — we’re talking floppy disks — and while that can’t be corrected in the middle of a crisis, it needs correcting sooner than later. The entire unemployment system is in need for an overhaul.

But for now, it is imperative that governments at all levels, as well as banks and businesses, give the unemployed leeway in delaying their payment obligations until those checks arrive. It could be a while.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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