This coronavirus is a once-in-a-generation pandemic that has required unprecedented measures to protect public health. An equally unprecedented response is needed to manage the growing economic risks, including the extra costs parents are facing.
The federal government has quickly passed two emergency relief programs and Congress is currently debating a third package representing $2 trillion to assist household, small businesses, and major industries hit hard by the pandemic. The most recent Senate proposal includes $250 billion in the form of cash checks sent directly to Americans. While the measure is important, it is insufficient in meeting the additional costs parents are facing as a result of school closures.
To slow the spread of the coronavirus, governors employed a range of social distancing measures from closing restaurants and bars to prohibiting gatherings of certain sizes. Governors from every state also took the necessary and unprecedented step of closing more than 120,000 U.S. public and private schools, affecting more than 50 million school students. The combined impact of these actions is already hitting American incomes. According to an NPR, PBS NewsHour, and the Marist poll from March 17, 25 percent of adults making less than $50,000 a year reported they had already been let go by their employer or had their work hours reduced.
There is strong support among federal policymakers to provide unrestricted cash benefits directly to individuals. The question is no longer if but how much, to whom, and for how long. The Trump administration proposed $1,000 per individual and $500 per child. The Senate Republican package, unveiled last Thursday, would provide payments of $1,200 to individuals plus $500 for every child with phasing out for those earning more than $75,000. Senate Democrats have proposed $2,000 per American, plus an additional $1,500 in July, if there is still a public health emergency. Any stimulus bill, however, remains fluid as Congress and the White House continue to negotiate.
Direct cash assistance has the advantages of speed and flexibility to meet the immediate needs of Americans, including rent, food, groceries, and utility bills. But families are confronting more than just economic shocks, they’re facing educational shocks resulting from children being home. Parents are now scrambling to buy computers, mobile hotspots, books, and other services to make sure their children do not fall behind academically.
And, as many have noted, school closures can widen equity gaps leaving many of our most vulnerable, low-income children behind. Schools are racing to set up online learning and virtual tutoring programs that some children will not be able to take advantage of. The Federal Communications Commission reports that more than 21 million Americans have no access to broadband internet. Lower-income families also tend to be more smartphone dependent and lack the tablets or computers needed to access digital lessons and materials.
Recognizing these additional costs many low-income families are now facing, the U.S. Congress should go further in the cash benefit program and provide $1,000 per child. The benefit should have an income cap, $90,000 for singles and $180,000 for couples, so that it targets assistance to those who need it the most. And it should not be a one-time payment, but rather a monthly benefit with clear triggers, such as public-health emergency declarations and extended school closures, to continue the payments until this crisis has abated.
The power with this approach is its flexibility to meet families where their needs are, from school supplies to groceries. Parents would be able to purchase the computers and connectivity needed for their children to access online coursework or videoconference with their teacher. They could purchase books and school supplies. It would help offset the costs of additional therapies and support for special needs children.
Congress should not wait until the crisis worsens, given the needs families are facing right now that they hadn’t even imagined just two weeks ago. This direct cash assistance could make the difference between a child continuing their studies or falling behind.
We have hard and difficult days ahead, but families, communities, and their schools can help to not only mitigate the spread of the virus but also protect the most vulnerable if they get the help they need. Direct assistance will give families the additional financial support they need as they confront these uncertain times.