Trillions of Dollars Have Been Spent on COVID-19 Relief – And It’s Still Not Enough

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock (11789009e)President Joe Biden departs after attending Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the Georgetown neighborhood of WashingtonBiden, Washington, United States - 06 Mar 2021.
Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock / Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

As Congress prepares another injection of COVID-19 aid for businesses and individuals, there’s been debate about whether it’s necessary on top of the US$3.5 trillion spent so far.

See: Here’s How Americans Really Spent Their First Two Stimulus Checks
Find: If You Get a Stimulus Check, How Will You Use It? Take Our Poll

President Joe Biden had initially hoped to get bipartisan support for his $1.9 trillion proposal, but the only counteroffer from Republicans was a $600 billion bill, with many in the GOP suggesting more money wasn’t needed. And some economists have expressed concern that giving Americans too much right now could overheat the economy.

We are public opinion scholars at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In cooperation with our partners at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio, we conducted a survey in July and August of last year to try to understand how the first round of aid had affected American families in need. What we found shocked us then and feels relevant now as the government negotiates its next steps.

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Despite trillions of dollars in government assistance, about two-thirds of families that suffered job losses or reduced wages during the pandemic still reported facing serious financial hardship.

Many people were struggling – and still are – just to pay for basic necessities, like food and rent.

The First Round of Pandemic Aid

Congress passed most of the initial relief in March, including direct payments to qualifying families, expanded unemployment benefits and loans to small businesses that turned into grants if they kept workers on their payroll.

See: Treasury Secretary Yellen Confident $1.9 Trillion Bill Will Help Bring Country ‘Back to Full Employment’ Next Year
Find: Senate Finally Passes Biden’s $1.9 Trillion American Rescue Plan

By July 1, when we began our survey, most Americans entitled to a direct check should have received it, and unemployed adults were still receiving supplemental aid of $600 a week on top of state benefits.

We wanted to understand the financial burdens experienced by American families that were economically harmed by the coronavirus pandemic. And we wanted to see whether the government aid was helping the people who needed it most.

Using a nationally representative, randomized survey design, we contacted 3,454 adults and asked them about the financial problems facing their households. We focused on the 46% who said they or other adults in their household either lost a job, had to close a business, were furloughed or had their wages or hours reduced since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. We published our findings in the economic affairs journal Challenge in January.

Serious Financial Problems

While it seems like a no-brainer that Americans weren’t ready for the unexpected employment disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was surprising to us that federal aid and charitable assistance seemed to be doing so little to support the people it was intended to help.

See: Do You Think the Minimum Wage Should Be $15? Take Our Poll
Find: Weekly Jobless Claims on the Rise Again, at 745,000

We found that the aid didn’t put much of a dent in the financial problems faced by families earning less than $100,000, whether because relief was delayed or wasn’t spent, the amount wasn’t adequate or the funds never made it to the intended recipients.

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Among households with employment or wage losses during the pandemic, 87% of those earning less than $30,000 a year and 68% of those earning $30,000 to $99,999 told us they were still facing serious financial problems. And more than half of households in these income brackets reported they had already used up all or most of their savings – or they didn’t have savings to begin with. That share jumped to over three-quarters for people with incomes under $30,000.

Savings take years or decades to accumulate, so it’s likely these households are in even worse trouble now. What’s more, significantly less aid has been provided from the federal government since we conducted our survey.

Many Americans Still Need a Lifeboat

Our findings suggest there is a definite need for further government aid on a large scale for tens of millions of families.

See: Stimulus Payments Drive 10% Increase in Personal Income in January
Find: Those $1,400 Stimulus Checks Are Costing Taxpayers $15,000 Per Household

A useful way to think about this is how the government provides relief after a natural disaster. In disasters, cash payments are often sent directly to those in need, like lifeboats launched to rescue people at risk of drowning.

And in fact, the pandemic has been an economic disaster for some – particularly low-income and Black and Latino households – more than others. They still need a lifeboat to get them through the storm.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the Author

Mary G. Findling
Research Associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University

Mary works for the Harvard Opinion Research Program on public opinion for public health issues. She holds a PhD in Health Policy at Harvard University, and a Master of Science degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences from the Harvard School of Public Health.

John M. Benson
Senior Research Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University

John M. Benson is Managing Director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program and a Senior Research Scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. At Harvard since 1992, John has directed numerous national and international polling projects leading to more than 80 publications in Health Affairs, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Public Opinion Quarterly, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Public Health Reports, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Food Safety, Milbank Quarterly, Archives of Internal Medicine, Social Science Research, and other domestic policy and polling journals. He is also co-author of American Public Opinion and Health Care (CQ Press). John has managed survey projects with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. He also played a key role in the design and analysis of a series of surveys with the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation on public knowledge, values, and attitudes on domestic policy issues. He has also served as a survey consultant to WebMD.com. Previously, John was Associate Editor of Public Perspective and Senior Opinion Analyst at The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, where he was instrumental in the development of the POLL database, an essential research tool in the field of public opinion. He has an M.A. in History of Science from the University of Wisconsin.

Robert J. Blendon
Richard L. Menschel Professor of Public Health and Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis, Emeritus, Harvard University

Robert J. Blendon is Richard L. Menschel Professor of Public Health and Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis, Emeritus. He directs the Harvard Opinion Research Program, which focuses on the better understanding of public knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about health and other major domestic public policy issues. He also co-directs a joint polling project with NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He has co-directed joint polling projects with Washington Post, NPR, Boston Globe and USA Today. He has received the Warren J. Mitofsky Award for excellence in public opinion research. He teaches a course on U.S. health politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Prior to his Harvard appointment, he was senior vice-president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In addition, he has served as a senior consultant for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Governors’ Association, and the U.S. Congress Committee on Ways and Means. He holds an MBA from the University of Chicago and a doctoral degree in health policy from the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

Trillions of Dollars Have Been Spent on COVID-19 Relief – And It’s Still Not Enough
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