The Trump Administration’s Handling of Coronavirus Threatens a Long Unemployment Crisis

The White House stands at dusk, February 2020.

This column contains an update.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released employment numbers for April that showed a tragic and historic increase in unemployment. The economy experienced an unprecedented loss of 20.5 million jobs in April, bringing the unemployment rate to 14.7 percent. But while this is the highest unemployment rate the United States has seen since the Great Depression, it almost certainly understates the extent of job losses.  The BLS noted that 9.9 million additional people were not counted as unemployed because they were not actively looking for work during the last four weeks or were not able to take a job. Employment as a share of the population dropped 8.7 percentage points to 51.3 percent, record numbers both in terms of the percentage drop and the absolute level. Indeed, when one includes discouraged jobseekers and part-time workers seeking full-time employment, the unemployment rate increases to 22.8 percent.  And we know that more than 7 million additional people have applied for unemployment insurance benefits since the BLS conducted its April survey.*

While the immediate cause of this spike in joblessness is, of course, the necessary stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures taken to respond to the crisis, the rise in unemployment—and how long it lasts—cannot be separated from choices made by the Trump administration. In understanding the state of the economy, as well as what comes next, the following three elements of this crisis must be understood:

  1. The economic crisis we are facing—and the economic pain we expect in the months ahead—is the result of a failed public health response. The Trump administration ignored early warnings, misled the public, and made the coronavirus crisis worse. The fact that the administration bungled the testing regime early on in the crisis meant that the United States could never contain the virus, as other countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan have done. As a consequence of that failure, the United States has had to engage in social distancing that has meant economic shock in order to avoid significantly greater levels of infections and deaths. The depth and scope of the economic pain being felt is a consequence of the administration’s delayed response and complete failure take leadership during this crisis.
  2. The administration’s inability to put in place appropriate public health measures going forward—combined with its insistence that efforts to contain the virus should be lifted in the absence of those measures—is likely to not only prolong the public health crisis but also extend the economic pain. Rather than provide workers, businesses, and families the confidence that they can return to activity safely, the administration is taking steps that try to ignore the risk of infection, such as absolving employers of responsibility for worker safety through a liability shield or forcing workers to return to work even when they have concerns about their health. In this environment, we are likely to see decreased demand for some time to come because people will have little confidence in individual state reopening strategies disconnected from science—as we are already seeing across the country.
  3. By rejecting efforts that would support families, workers, and communities during this crisis, the administration and its allies in Congress are putting us on a path for continued double-digit unemployment even after the pandemic finally ends. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the unemployment rate—absent additional action—will be near 10 percent at the end of 2021, several months after they project social distancing as a result of the health crisis abates. By opposing efforts to provide sufficient aid to states and localities; relief to families and unemployed workers; and assistance to those struggling the most, President Donald Trump, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and their allies are insisting on making this extended period of double-digit unemployment a reality.

There is an alternative path, however: Taking the necessary steps to address the public health crisis and ensure that people can go back to work safely and doing what is needed to address the immediate economic pain and avoid prolonged unemployment. As Congress and the administration consider an additional stimulus package, they should put in place necessary public health protections while providing robust aid to families, workers, and communities for as long as the crisis lasts. This will allow us to avoid double-digit unemployment from being a devastating reality for American families for the next year and a half or more.

Public health failures has driven unemployment up

The rise in unemployment over the past two months is a direct consequence of the public health crisis—one that could have taken a far less severe toll under an administration that had been better prepared for it and that had approached it more wisely. The Trump administration has failed to develop an evidence-based plan to end the coronavirus crisis. Instead, its mismanagement has resulted in widespread fear and uncertainty as to when it might be appropriate to reopen parts of the economy. President Trump did not take the pandemic seriously when cases first emerged in the United States; his administration failed to use the month of April—when the nation was largely shut down—to ramp up the testing, contact tracing, and other pieces necessary for the public health response. And now, Trump is pushing states to reopen too soon. Before people feel comfortable enough to once again venture out of their homes and reengage in work and other economic activities, we need to ensure the country has developed the necessary health infrastructure to allow us to gradually reopen our economy without sparking a second wave of infections.

The economic crisis cannot end until public health crisis is solved

The Trump administration and its allies are arguing that the way to solve the economic crisis is to open up the country, ending stay-at-home orders and engaging in aggressive efforts to force business to return to normal. But in the absence of public health measures that actually allow activity to return safely, the administration’s strategy appears to be one of “ignore and press on,” with potentially devastating results for workers and communities. This strategy includes:

  • Pushing communities to lift stay-at-home orders and other public health measures before sufficient testing, tracing, isolation and ongoing surveillance is in place
  • Forcing workers back on the job, even without sufficient personal protective equipment or workplace safety protections—whether by removing unemployment insurance for those who are recalled to unsafe situations or through executive actions such as those taken for the meatpacking industry
  • Proposing to absolve employers of the responsibility to keep workers and communities safe through blanket immunity from liability—a measure that would do nothing to keep workers safe or build confidence in economic reopening

These steps reflect an acceptance of elevated risks of transmission, and ultimately, death. And despite the president’s rhetoric, it will make it less likely that the economy can return faster.

First, it is clear that the public isn’t going to feel safe to return to normal economic activity absent additional public health measures. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that “67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store, and 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant.” These results were similar both in states that had loosened restrictions and those that had not and is consistent with other data. As long as people are anxious that returning to normal activities could put them at risk of contracting the virus, the economy will be unable to recover.

Second, a strategy that fails to put in place the necessary protections against spreading the virus will increase transmission among the public, and especially workers, in ways that may force additional shutdowns and prolong the period of public health crisis. In sum, prolonged public health crisis equals a prolonged state of economic distress—extending the number of months with a job market like April’s. The best approach—an approach adopted by other countries who are faring better both with their health outcomes and their economic impacts—is a national plan to fight the virus that is based on testing, tracing, and isolation.

After the pandemic ends, double-digit unemployment will persist under the current course

The CARES act provided large, necessary relief to most Americans, including assistance for workers, families, and small businesses. But this assistance will run out before the economic emergency is behind us, forcing the economy into unnecessarily prolonged hardship.

Indeed, the measures in the CARES Act both leave important gaps and will expire long before the economy is expected to return to normal. States and localities are facing extreme budget shortfalls. If action is not taken before state budget deadlines on July 1, states are likely to begin implementing layoffs of teachers and first responders and service cuts in the coming months that will cause additional job loss. Expanded unemployment insurance benefits expire at the end of July, removing an important lifeline for those out of work. While the direct payments in the CARES Act provided important assistance to families, the $1,200 per person payment will not be enough to sustain households through a prolonged crisis. The initial Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) support for small businesses has run out, and a second round of funding may soon run out too. And in important areas such as housing, food assistance, child care, and health coverage, among others, the CARES Act failed to do enough to address the hardship being felt today, let alone over a prolonged crisis—even as it provided generous aid to corporations.

As a result, under baseline projections—those that assume no further action on the part of the government—double-digit unemployment is expected to be a feature of the economy for at least the next year and a half. As noted above, the CBO estimates that the unemployment rate will remain near 10 percent at the end of 2021—many months after they predict that social distancing due to the pandemic itself ends.

Yet the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have indicated that they are prepared to accept this reality, or at best, offer solutions that do nothing to shift it. White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said that another round of coronavirus relief legislation might not be necessary, and chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Sunday that nothing has been decided yet and that “there’s kind of a pause period right now” and that “we will wait and see.” Senator McConnell has dismissed state and local aid as a “blue state bailout,” despite pain being felt in all states.

To the extent the administration or its allies have signaled a desire to act, they have focused on measures that would be woefully insufficient to address the economic challenges we face. Aside from the liability shield, Trump has signaled a push for poorly targeted corporate tax cuts or a payroll tax cut that would fail to benefit those who are out of work. An illustrative example of Trump’s approach is his call for removing limits on corporate deductions for meals and entertainment—effectively allowing companies to deduct expenses for sports tickets, golf trips, or visits to casinos—which would provide a benefit to corporations and their wealthiest executives but do little to help put money in the hands of those who need it.

A better path: a response that meets the public health and economic challenge

As it considers another package to address this crisis, Congress has the opportunity to take a path that rejects double-digit unemployment as a lasting feature of this crisis. The approach Congress should take would allow economic activity to restart safely and ensure that, as the economy restarts, we are actually getting people back to work rather than accepting a recession that keeps millions unemployed.

First, that requires a sufficient public health response. The purpose of stay-at-home orders in the first place was to suppress transmission to low levels and buy time to put in place extensive testing and contact tracing programs, but we have yet to meet those goals. Nationally, we still need to increase our testing capacity and reach at least 500,000 tests a day; scale up contact tracing—both manually and by apps that meet privacy standards—in order to isolate people who test positive as well as their contacts; and have in place a far more robust disease surveillance system.

And second, it requires an economic response that offers relief that both addresses immediate pain that families, small businesses, and communities are facing and is sufficient to build back to a stronger economy.

In particular, the package must be:

  1. At a scale necessary to address the crisis. We need to pursue a fiscal response that is proportional to both the public health and economic threat posed by COVID-19. The economic consequences of this crisis are staggering. Children are going hungry; households are piling massive debts; millions of homeowners are delaying their mortgage payments; small businesses in hard hit states received fewer loans than others; minority small business owners are struggling to stay open; and state and local governments are preparing for significant layoffs of teachers and first responders in the absence of federal aid. Action needs to be sufficiently large to both address the immediate hardship that families are facing and get the economy back to work. This big push for aid has to be coordinated at the national, state, and local levels. An important lesson form the Great Recession was that austerity at the level of states and localities was a key factor in delaying economic recovery for years, since states were in austerity mode from 2008 until 2012, contributing to lower GDP growth. And, in contrast to concerns raised by some congressional Republicans—concerns that were absent during the passage of nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts in 2017—we have the fiscal capacity to respond robustly, especially with interest rates near zero. Indeed, evidence suggests that increased fiscal stimulus may increase fiscal sustainability.
  2. Sustained for the duration of the crisis. Relief must be sustained, automatic, and available with certainty for as long as it is needed. We should learn from the Great Recession, when stimulus was insufficient and removed too soon. During that crisis, unemployment insurance expired for many workers long before the crisis had passed; fiscal aid ended long before state and fiscal budget cuts ceased being a drag on the recovery. Key measures to support the economy, such as unemployment insurance, state and local aid, and direct relief to families, should automatically extend for the duration of the economic crisis—ensuring that we are providing sufficient relief and necessary stimulus as long as is needed to support a robust recovery.
  3. Targeted to all the areas where Americans are feeling economic hardship. There is no silver bullet that will bring the economy back. We need a multilayered attack that addresses the root cause of the problem—the spread of the virus—and ameliorates its symptoms in the form of hardship for families, workers, small businesses, and communities. Building off the CARES Act, additional aid needs to make sure it is reaching those who have been excluded. That requires ensuring that aid is more completely available—for example, ensuring that immigrant families can access needed relief or closing loopholes that prevent workers from having access to paid leave. It also means providing much needed assistance in areas such as food assistance, child care, housing, and for people with disabilities—areas that would both address concentrated harm and support the economy going forward. Finally, the package should be designed so that—rather than exacerbating structural problems in our economy that benefited corporations over workers—it puts us on a path for a stronger economy once the crisis ends.

The administration and its allies appear content to accept a prolonged period of public health and economic harm that is a result of the mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis to date—essentially condemning the nation to a greater toll from the virus itself and a much longer period of economic distress. It must be clear that the harsh reality of the April jobs report—and the much broader pain that has been felt over recent weeks—was the result of both failed policy decisions and mismanagement. By the same token, we have the choice going forward as to whether we accept further pain or take steps that would both keep people healthy and get Americans back to work.

Jacob Leibenluft is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Andres Vinelli is the vice president for Economic Policy at American Progress.

* Update, May 8, 2020: This column has been updated to reflect the release of the BLS Employment Situation Summary. 

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