Under the current Democratic proposal, eligibility for COVID relief will be based on last year’s income. That’s like prescribing medicine today based on your temperature last April. That’s not the only problem with the Democrats’ cumbersome plan for what have come to be known as “stimulus checks.” By imposing complex, impractical, and ever-changing rules on the process, Democrats have sent the wrong “meta-political” message to the America people.
It’s bad enough that this plan needs more coherence. It also needs more soul.
That’s not to minimize the suffering that will be relieved by this or any aid package. If the Democrats can get $1,400 out to millions of Americans, however imperfectly chosen, that will be an accomplishment. But it will neglect millions of desperate people. And the way it’s being done sends an uninspired and uninspiring message to a pandemic-weary people.
“It’s bad enough that this plan needs more coherence. It also needs more soul.”
Let’s start with that phrase, “stimulus checks.” Sure, relief checks will stimulate the economy. But that phrase, used by press and politicians alike, frames the process in an overly technocratic way. The main goal is not macro-economic, although that’s important. The real priority is, or should be, to relieve human suffering.
They’re not “stimulus checks.” They’re emergency help for human beings in pain.
Then there is the size of the checks. A lot of Democrats—both politicians and commenters—have defended the decision to call for $1,400 checks, rather than the promised $2,000. They’ve had to use a complicated argument, which is that people—well, some people—have already received $600 checks. A $1,400 check will bring the total to $2,000.
But Democrats made some very unambiguous promises during the Georgia Senate race—promises that won them both votes and campaign contributions. “If you send Jon and the Reverend to Washington,” said President Biden, “those $2,000 checks will go out the door, restoring hope and decency and honor for so many people who are struggling right now.” Campaign events also featured a giant mockup of a $2,000 check.
That’s a very clear promise. Nevertheless, pundits have gamely attempted to argue for ambiguity: Maybe, they say, the $2,000 promise really meant $600+$1,400. Some have even suggested that people who complain about a broken promise can’t do basic arithmetic.
But it’s not a math problem. People were promised a $2,000 check. They even saw a picture of it. Now they’re being told they’ll get a $1,400 check—and that they were stupid for ever believing what they heard and saw. It sounds a little like the arguments you hear from insurance companies when they won’t pay your claim: Sure, it says “You’re covered” on the front page of the brochure, but didn’t you read the fine print on page 33?
“People were promised a $2,000 check. They even saw a picture of it. Now they’re being told they’ll get a $1,400 check—and that they were stupid for ever believing what they heard and saw.”
A round of $1400 checks, which could have been presented as a win for working people, will instead be seen by many as a broken promise instead. That’s likely to have grave repercussions for Democrats in 2022.
These arguments aren’t just disingenuous. They also heighten the perception that the Democratic Party is made up of educated professionals who look down on the working class.
(That perception was heightened recently when Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the new DCCC chair, said of Republicans: “They can do QAnon, or they can do college-educated voters. They cannot do both.” That remark borders on political malpractice, given the fact that two-thirds of Americans don’t have a college diploma.)
Then there are the rules themselves. The qualification process excludes millions of people in need. More than 10 million are officially unemployed, with more uncounted in the official numbers. Most of them are presumably making less than they did in 2019 or 2020. But eligibility will be based on prior earnings, when they had jobs. Others will find their checks unfairly reduced, rather than eliminated, based on previous years’ earnings.
H. L. Mencken defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” These rules reflect the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might get a benefit they don’t desperately need. To prevent that, they’re willing to ensure that millions won’t get help, despite the fact that the “didn’t need it” problem is easily fixed: tax the check amount back from wealthy.
“There’s a lot of the federal deficit here in Washington, but not much talk about our national deficit of the soul.”
The meta-political statement is, “Alright, we’ll help you, a little, but we don’t trust you.”
Since this is a new Congress and a new administration, it’s a bit like asking for a pre-nuptial agreement on the first date.
What should be done? Means-testing should be eliminated from emergency relief. Everyone should receive medical coverage, at least for the duration of the pandemic, as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have proposed. We need to create jobs and steady incomes for everyone. We must boost the minimum wage. And our political conversation should carry a broader message, not of mutual fear and suspicion, but of mutual trust and support.
There’s a lot of the federal deficit here in Washington, but not much talk about our national deficit of the soul. Until that changes, we will lack the political tools, the political vision, and the political will to meet the needs of the moment.