It is May 12, 2020. Sixty days have passed since President Trump declared a national emergency caused by the global spread of the novel coronavirus. In the interim, Congress has passed, and President Trump has signed into law, three major bills in response to the pandemic that will ultimately cost $2.5 trillion. Something like $1 trillion of that will be in the form of direct payments or subsidized benefits to American households. But in introducing the Heroes Act in the House of Representatives, Democrats are only at the beginning of a push to spend multiples of this amount—a push that continues almost a year and a half later.
We know now that poverty at the time was likely already lower than it had been a year earlier. But the $3.4-trillion bill—which passed the House three days later but died in the Senate—would have spent an additional $1.5 trillion on unemployment benefits, $1,200-per-person checks, health care subsidies, housing assistance, student loan forgiveness, food stamp (SNAP) benefits, earned income tax credits, and child tax credits. The faucet would not open fully until Democrats won control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency, eight months hence.
Progressives’ focus on propping up family finances may reflect admirable motives, but it has come with enormous costs. We should never be satisfied that poverty is “low enough,” but the pandemic has created other problems that we have not addressed as effectively and that demand attention now that poverty is again at an all-time low. With the reconciliation showdown looming, it is important to examine the consequences of progressives’ unprecedented campaign to direct government assistance to poor—and decidedly non-poor—Americans.
Before turning to that question, it is helpful to understand the behind-the-scenes push for a bigger safety net and how successful that campaign has been.