What to watch now that Congress has passed the America CARES Act

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There’s a lot to digest in the $2 trillion rescue package Congress just passed. The wide-ranging bill contains some vitally needed aid in this moment of crisis, some dubious handouts to multinational corporations, and some provisions that could be helpful or irresponsible depending on how they are implemented. With all that remains uncertain, there are, however, some things we know already.

The COVID-19 pandemic has achieved the recently unthinkable, forcing bipartisan compromise and cooperation. The America CARES Act evolved rapidly over the past several days as Democrats and Republicans in Congress negotiated over both substance and scope. A Congress often girdled by rancor managed to overcome partisan disagreements and deliver needed tonic to a nation in distress. We’ve become unused to seeing our most powerful institutions respond to the pressing needs of the day, so take some solace in this moment that Congress stepped up to the plate.

For a bipartisan response to be most effective will require swift implementation of the America CARES Act and recognition that there are still gaps in relief and emerging issues that will require further response to fully address the country’s pressing needs.

Among the implementation considerations will be the speed with which cash gets into the pockets of people who need it the most and how we provide relief to impacted people who are not provided adequate relief in this bill, as well as whether corporate executives use it to enrich themselves and their wealthy shareholders.

Moreover, while many important provisions were included like unemployment insurance enhancements and small business supports, some issues like paid sick leave and much-needed health care supply shortages were not addressed. Finally, some of the provisions like aid to state and local governments were valuable, but they will likely not address the full impact of the pandemic.

In some cases, we know the current systems we have in place aren’t set up or structured to respond quickly and adequately. North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system is already quaking under the strain, with people waiting hours or days to even submit a claim, due to sheer volume and lack of technological upgrades and staffing capacity. This critical emergency response system during an economic downturn will become even more vital as the increased assistance included in the America CARES Act moves through and jobless workers experience a state set of unemployment insurance rules that has provided too few workers with access to critical wage replacement by design. 

A crisis like this underscores how vital an effective and transparent public sector is, so we’ll see how fast we can make up for years of under-investment at both the state and federal levels in the coming months.

Finally, make no mistake, pulling us through and out of this time will take more dramatic government action. The America CARES Act provides vitally needed relief, but the social and economic challenges we brought with us into this pandemic will make its impact deeper and more sustained than it would otherwise have been. Millions of North Carolina families are just a few missed paychecks away from poverty, we’ve given away billions in tax breaks to powerful interests we so desperately need right now, and we’ve stood largely idle as more and more wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The COVID-19 pandemic is already revealing how vulnerable we’ve left ourselves, and even a $2 trillion package won’t erase that exposure.

Let’s hope the America CARES Act is more than a one-off event – that it’s the beginning of a long-overdue reckoning where we start to address our preexisting social and economic ailments.

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