When the House passed the HEROES Act in mid-May, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called it “the legislative equivalent of stand-up comedy.”
What’s so funny? Sending Americans a new and bigger stimulus check, extending expanded unemployment benefits for another six months, rental assistance and mortgage relief, hazard pay for essential workers, student loan deferrals, and a moratorium on debt collections. Apparently that’s what.
By the time the Senate reaches a bipartisan consensus on the rest of the next coronavirus relief package — if it ever does — it’s unlikely to look much like the HEROES Act. It will probably contain another stimulus check, but the rest will be significantly watered down. Unfortunately, watering it down is incredibly dangerous.
The relief stipulated in the House bill is the bare minimum for avoiding mass economic devastation. But that devastation — or, more to the point, the threat of it — is not something the Right is necessarily seeking to avoid. The Right wants to reopen the economy and it knows that the best way to dissolve workers’ resistance is to make people afraid of being evicted, falling into a debt hole, or even going hungry — more afraid than of catching a deadly virus. For those hell-bent on reopening, widespread fear of dire economic consequences for not going back to work has great political utility.
While its main provisions are badly needed, the House legislation is already insufficient. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out, unlike many European countries, the US Congress has made no effort to secure workers’ paychecks and employment pending the end of the pandemic, what’s sometimes called “deep freezing” the economy. Nor has Congress moved to guarantee public health coverage during this public health crisis by scaling up the existing Medicare program. HEROES is also more modest than the $2,000 a month direct universal cash payments Sanders proposed to cover everyone’s living expenses through the end of the crisis.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, the coronavirus relief package is going to move away from Sanders’s vision, not toward it. As a result, pandemic relief will almost certainly be inadequate to stop millions of Americans’ household finances from spiraling out of control. In reality, the benefits included in the previous coronavirus relief package, the CARES Act, have tided people over these last few months and masked the depth of the economic crisis we’re facing. If the Senate fails to pass the measures included in the HEROES Act, the mask is coming off.
And that may have a silver lining for those politicians who consider it their responsibility to be create optimal conditions for big businesses to accumulate profit. It can lead desperate people to not merely accept the reopening of the economy, but demand it.
A somewhat similar strategy was pursued by Richard Nixon in Chile — a plan to “make the economy scream” in order to stop the socialist Allende government in its tracks. In this case, it would be about making the domestic kitchen-table economy scream, dissolving any resistance to reopening the economy regardless of public health and safety.
Right now, the biggest obstacle to the economy reopening is the widespread and well-founded fear that business as usual will lead to mass illness and death.
It’s difficult to erode that fear through reasoned debate, because reality is on the side of a prolonged shutdown. But that fear can be replaced by a new fear, such as people becoming frightened by the prospect of losing a roof over their heads. In this way, austerity can essentially redirect public opinion, not because people are convinced, but because they’re coerced.
States with conservative governments have already been experimenting with this approach. When the first coronavirus relief package was passed, many states imposed eviction moratoria, including red states like Texas. If people can’t work, they can’t make money, and if they can’t make money, they can’t pay rent. An eviction moratorium was the only sensible solution.
But as Texas lawmakers began to agitate for reopening, despite the absence of curve-flattening, the eviction moratorium became politically troublesome. Naturally, if people are able to meet their basic needs without working, they will be warier of returning to potentially hazardous work situations.
The Texas Supreme Court lifted the statewide eviction moratorium last month, allowing for municipal discretion. In Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, the headlines read, “Fears Swirl in Houston as Texas Lifts its Eviction Moratorium.” Immediately, landlords began informing people with outstanding rent that they were moving ahead with eviction proceedings.
And that was before the expiration of the expanded unemployment benefits provided for in the first coronavirus relief package. 180,000 unemployment claims were filed in Houston in the month of April alone. All of those people and more are currently receiving $600 a week from the federal government to help them survive joblessness.
The expiration of the eviction moratorium was already a powerful incentive to oppose a continued shutdown. If the Senate allows expanded federal unemployment payments to expire without replacing them, the people of Houston will demand work. As for the virus, they’ll take their chances.
And their chances won’t look good. The consequences of the pandemic itself will fall on the shoulders of the same people who are affected most by the end of unemployment payments and the lifting of eviction moratoria.
Renters make on average about half of what homeowners make every year, and nearly half of all renters have reported job or wage loss due to the pandemic. Nearly 7 million households have simultaneously experienced job loss and are rent-burdened. Additionally, it’s low-income people, ergo renters, who are most likely to have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. The cherry on top is that the exact same people were already least likely to have decent health insurance before the pandemic booted 5.4 million Americans off their private insurance.
People without emergency funds and with bills to pay become desperate for money. In the absence of public relief, they will demand work. This will give states the green light to reopen the economy, and when that happens people will get sick, and many of them and their family members will die. At least they’ll die with a roof over their head.
A virus that can kill you or cause long-term health damage is scary enough as it is. But an austere federal response means working-class people are now staring down the barrel of multiple other frightening prospects at once, from debt to eviction to hunger. This may have the effect of coercing people into accepting — or even embracing — an economic reopening, even if people remain personally wary.
The Right can’t persuade us that reopening the economy is the right thing to do, but their policies can wear people down until it’s accepted as an inevitability or an urgent necessity, regardless of the health consequences. They can make the kitchen-table economy scream.