COVID-19 is a public health challenge, but as the pandemic goes on, it’s clearly an economic crisis as well.
Americans are struggling with business closures, soaring unemployment and the relentless march of bills coming due each month. Months of these conditions means we in the Berkshires and people across America are feeling serious economic pain.
Local restaurants all over the Berkshires have been struggling to keep their doors open and staff employed. Managers are getting creative, offering delivery and curbside pickup; still they are losing money. With cold weather setting in, and more people out of work, many locals will find it hard to splurge for dinner when they don’t have a paycheck.
To help, Congress passed an emergency relief package in March giving direct payments of $1,200 to most adults in addition to $500 per child. In December, the House and Senate agreed on a second relief package that will deliver another $600 to most adults in the coming weeks.
During discussions of both of these packages, members of the Republican-led Senate, the Democratic-controlled House and the Trump administration all put forth ideas for direct cash payments to Americans.
“We need cash in the hands of affected families,’’ Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said this spring. In December, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley called for a direct payment of $1,200 per adult.
“An [economic impact payment] of $1,200, $2,400, or more can be a lifeline for a family in severe financial distress,” Democratic House members told the Internal Revenue Service in a December letter.
“You can’t call yourself pro-family if you don’t support $2,000 direct payments to assist struggling American families,” tweeted Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., on Dec. 29.
We’re encouraged to see the broad agreement during a crisis that will help put cash in people’s pockets and let them spend it how they see fit.
When the incoming Congress turns its attention to climate change — another looming crisis — it should not forget this lesson: Direct cash payments are a simple, transparent and fair way to support Americans when economic winds are shifting.
Climate change demands that we stop emitting greenhouse gases, which are trapping excess heat in our atmosphere and upsetting our planet’s delicate balance. America needs to move from a fossil fuel-based economy to a clean energy economy. That will be a major change, but it should not be an acute crisis like we’re in now. By planning to give cash payments to Americans, we can ensure a healthy economy while making a gentle transition to a clean energy future.
Here’s how: Congress could put a price on carbon pollution, driving our economy away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy sources, and it could rebate that money as an equal cash payment, or “dividend,” to all Americans each month.
Cash payments put Americans in the driver’s seat because they are empowered to decide how to spend it: pay bills, buy groceries, save, invest in a more energy efficient car, spend it at a local business or anything else.
This is especially important for low- and middle-income Americans, who might otherwise struggle with cost increases as we shift to a clean energy economy. When dividends are given to everyone, low- and middle-income Americans benefit dramatically.
Finally, cash dividends are transparent and easy to track, unlike tax offsets. That visibility helps people and our elected officials stay focused on the problem at hand: right now, the pandemic. Soon, climate change.
It’s clear that money in the hands of Americans helps keep our economy running. That’s why Congress and the president used this tool in March, and returned to it in December as the crisis continued. When we’ve dealt with COVID-19, let’s use that same tool to combat climate change.