Watching the senate, under the callous and inhumane rule of Mitch McConnell, fail to respond sufficiently and urgently to the dire suffering and needs of out-of-work Americans, largely denying their reality, brought to mind a scene from American author William Dean Howells’ 1890 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes.
Howells narrates in the novel the move of the married middle-class couple Basil and Isabelle March from Boston to New York with their children, as Basil pursues a mid-life career change from insurance executive to editor.
In New York, especially as they hunt arduously for an apartment, they encounter a metropolis much more sprawling and an urban culture much for diverse and divided and much less solicitous of human need and suffering.
In one scene, an apparently hungry and homeless man approaches them on the street begging for aid. Basil obliges with some alms only to enjoin a reproof from Isabelle who cautions that the man might have been a fraud, only pretending to be in need to scam them.
Basil responds to the effect that the man, even if a fraud, represents real need, and he would rather fall prey to this man’s pretense than risk not extending help to someone in real and dire need. The man could only succeed in his con because people recognize that real poverty exists.
This novelistic moment seems to capture the debacle of the discussion in the senate, and in the sudden public discourse at large, regarding whether or not to disburse $2,000 relief checks to Americans making less than $75,000.
The dithering and hesitation has been about whether or not Americans are in actual need and also about whether or not giving a blanket $2,000 to Americans without any kind of means testing is the most effective and targeted way to address whatever real need and suffering there may be.
This dithering goes on while demand at the nation’s food banks—the breadlines of the Great Depression—surges and supply dwindles and while millions find themselves on the brink of eviction because they cannot, and have not for months been able to, meet their rent and mortgage payments.
Lawrence Summers, a former economic advisor to President Obama, puts it this this way:
The question in assessing universal tax rebates is, what about the vast majority of families who are still working, and whose incomes have not declined or whose pension or Social Security benefits have not been affected by Covid-19? For this group, the pandemic has reduced the ability to spend more than the ability to earn.
So, the problem for Summers is that business aren’t open for people to spend their “stimulus” checks, so they won’t really help.
Somehow the millions of unemployed Americans waiting in breadlines in their cars or facing eviction are invisible to him, or they’re just conning the system. For these folks, the checks represent absolute relief, not economic “stimulus.” Even the language we use to describe the purpose of the checks is key in representing the reality of the situations an overwhelming number of Americans are facing.
Nobel prize-winning and noted liberal economist Paul Krugman also complained that the $2,000 checks were not targeted enough to meet need.
The Washington Post argued on its editorial page that the $2,000 relief checks were unnecessary because “the economy has healed significantly.” And they too agreed with Summers in seeing the checks as useless stimulus give-aways, because so many restaurants and businesses are not even open.
The Wall Street Journal went even further in arguing that for many the pandemic upended their finances in positive way, as they benefited from stock market recovery, low interest rates, and so forth.
All of these voices suddenly entering this debate fueled McConell’s power play and effectively gave him cover behind their “liberal” talking points, as he cited them all as if her were their mere ventriloquist’s dummy.
Here are just a few quotes from his speech on the Senate floor:
*“The liberal economist Larry Summers, President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and President Obama’s NEC director says, ‘There’s no good economic argument for universal $2,000 checks at this moment.’”
*“Even the liberal Washington Post today is laughing at the political left demanding more huge giveaways with no relationship to actual need.”
*“The Senate is not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats’ rich friends who don’t need the help.”
Somehow there is no need in America, despite the fact that 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since last August (The Washington Post itself reported!), and the money is going to the rich, even though in fact there is some means testing by income level.
Now, I don’t disagree that giving $2,000 to anybody making $75,000 or less or married couples making less than $150,000, regardless of whether or not they’ve lost paycheck, is not the best way to meet the needs of those in America suffering most.
My problem is with these voices suddenly jumping into this policy debate at this moment when the suffering is severe and many Americans are desperate.
The last relief bill was passed last March. Democrats in the House passed the HEROES Act last May.
These economists and media pundits could have jumped in at any time during these months to offer in a public forum a better way to determine how to direct funds to those suffering most, to those with real need, in the most targeted and effective way–IF that is really their concern.
You can’t tell me, with all the ways we have of collecting data on people in this information age, that we don’t collectively have the wherewithal to determine who is late on rent, who is relying on food banks, and so forth.
Give me a break.
These “expert” voices entering the fray now are just ideologues muddying the waters and distorting reality, denying the real need and suffering of millions of desperate Americans.
They do not want to hear the shepherd boy trying to tell them in their palaces warm what he sees.
While the solution of $2,000 is not perfect by any means and will distribute monies to those who are not in such need, at this point, like Howells’ character Basil March, I’d rather risk giving money to those not in need than risk not helping those really suffering.
Let’s be clear. We are in the middle of a surge, and vaccinations are proceeding slowly. We will be back at this table again sooner than later, so let’s give the $2,000 now and risk not doing it most efficaciously, and start figuring out now how to really address the needs of those suffering most.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.