This article is a part of the The Law, Economics, and Policy of the COVID-19 Pandemic symposium.
This week, Americans began receiving cold, hard cash from the government. Meant to cushion the economic fallout of Covid-19, the CARES Act provides households with relief payments of up to $1200 per adult and $500 per child. As we have written elsewhere, direct cash transfers are the simplest, least paternalistic, and most efficient way to protect Americans’ economic health – pandemic or not. The idea of simply giving people money has deep historical and wide ideological roots, culminating in Andrew Yang’s popularization of a universal basic income (“UBI”) during his now-suspended presidential campaign. The CARES Act relief provisions embody some of the potential benefits of a UBI, but nevertheless fail in key ways to deliver its true promise.
Provide Cash, No-Strings-Attached
Most promisingly, the relief payments are no-strings-attached. Recipients can use them as they – not the government – think best, be it for rent, food, or a laptop for a child to learn remotely. This freedom is a welcome departure from most current aid programs, which are often in-kind or restricted transfers. Kansas prohibits welfare recipients from using benefits at movie theaters and swimming pools. SNAP recipients cannot purchase “hot food” such as a ready-to-eat roasted chicken; California has a 17-page pamphlet identifying which foods users of Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”) benefits can buy (for example, white eggs but not brown).
These restrictions arise from a distrust of beneficiaries. Yet numerous studies show that recipients of cash transfers do not waste benefits on alcohol, drugs or gambling. Instead, beneficiaries in developing countries purchase livestock, metal roofs, or healthier food. In wealthier countries, cash transfers are associated with improvements in infant health, better nutrition, higher test scores, more schooling, and lower rates of arrest for young adults – all of which suggest beneficiaries do not waste cash.
Avoid Asset Tests
A second positive of the relief payments is that they eschew asset tests, unlike many welfare programs. For example, a family can lose hundreds of dollars of SNAP benefits if their countable assets exceed $2,250. Such limits act as an implicit wealth tax and discourage lower-income individuals from saving. Indeed, some recipients report engaging in transactions like buying furniture on lay-away (which does not count) to avoid the asset limits. Lower-income individuals, for whom a car repair bill or traffic ticket can lead to financial ruin, should be encouraged to – not penalized for – saving for a rainy day.
Don’t Worry So Much about the Labor Market
A third pro is that the direct relief payments are not tied to a showing of desert. They do not require one to work, be looking for work, or show that one is either unable to work or engaged in a substitute such as child care or school. Again, this contrasts with most current welfare programs. SNAP requires able-bodied childless adults to work or participate in training or education 80 hours a month. Supplemental Security Income requires non-elderly recipients to prove that they are blind or disabled. Nor do the relief payments require recipients to pass a drug test, or prove they have no criminal record.
As with spending restrictions, these requirements display distrust of beneficiaries. The fear is that “money for nothing” will encourage low-income individuals to leave their jobs en masse. But this fear, too, is largely overblown. Although past experiments with unconditional transfers show that total work hours drop, the bulk of this drop is from teenagers staying in school longer, new mothers delaying entrance into the workforce, and primary earners reducing their hours from say, 60 to 50 hours a week. We could also imagine UBI recipients spending time volunteering, engaging in the arts, or taking care of friends and relatives. None of these are necessarily bad things.
Don’t Limit Aid to the “Deserving”
On these three counts, the CARES Act embraces the promise of a UBI. But the CARES Act departs from key aspects of a well-designed, true UBI. Most importantly, the size of the relief payments – one-time transfers of $1200 per adult – pale in comparison to the Act’s enhanced unemployment benefits of $600/week. This mismatch underscores how deeply ingrained our country’s obsession with helping only the “deserving” poor is and how narrowly “desert” is defined. The Act’s most generous aid is limited to individuals with pre-existing connections to the formal labor market who leave under very specific conditions. Someone who cannot work because they are caring for a family member sick with COVID-19 qualifies, but not an adult child who left a job months ago to care for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s. A parent who cannot work because her child’s school was cancelled due to the pandemic qualifies, but not a parent who hasn’t worked the past couple years due to the lack of affordable child care. And because unemployment benefits not only turn on being previously employed but also rise the higher one’s past wages were, this mismatch magnifies that our safety net helps the slightly poor much more than the very poorest among us.
Don’t Impose Bureaucratic Hurdles
The botched roll-out of the enhanced unemployment benefits illustrates another downside to targeting aid only to the “deserving”: It is far more complicated than giving aid to all who need it. Guidance for self-employed workers (newly eligible for such benefits) is still forthcoming. Individuals with more than one employer before the crisis struggle to input multiple jobs in the system, even though their benefits increase as their past wages do. Even college graduates have trouble completing the clunky forms; a friend who teaches yoga had to choose between “aqua fitness instructor” and “physical education” when listing her job.
These frustrations are just another example of the government’s ineptitude at determining who is and is not work capable – even in good times. Often, the very people that can navigate the system to convince the government they are unable to work are actually the most work-capable. Those least capable of work, unable to navigate the system, receive nothing. And as millions of Americans spend countless hours on the phone and navigating crashing websites, they are learning what has been painfully obvious to many lower-income individuals for years – the government often puts insurmountable barriers in the way of even the “deserving poor.” These barriers – numerous office visits, lengthy forms, drug tests – are sometimes so time consuming that beneficiaries must choose between obtaining benefits to which they are legally entitled and applying for jobs or working extra hours. Lesson one from the CARES Act is that universal payments, paid to all, avoid these pitfalls.
Don’t Means Test Up Front
The CARES Act contains three other flaws that a well-designed UBI would also fix. First, the structure of the cash transfers highlights the drawbacks of upfront means testing. In an attempt to limit aid to Americans in financial distress, the $1200 relief payments begin to phase-out at five cents on the dollar when income exceeds a certain threshold: $75,000 for childless, single individuals and $150,000 for married couples. The catch is that for most Americans, their 2019 or 2018 incomes will determine whether their relief payments phase-out – and therefore how much aid they receive now, in 2020. In a world where 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past month, looking to one or two-year old data to determine need is meaningless. Many Americans whose pre-pandemic incomes exceeded the threshold are now struggling to make mortgage payments and put food on the table, but will receive little or no direct cash aid under the CARES Act until April of 2021.
This absurdity magnifies a problem inherent in ex ante means tests. Often, one’s past financial status does not tell us much about an individual’s current needs. This is particularly true when incomes fluctuate from period to period, as is the case with many lower-income workers. Imagine a fast food worker and SNAP beneficiary whose schedule changes month to month, if not week to week. If she is lucky enough to work a lot in November, she may see her December SNAP benefits reduced. But what if her boss gives her fewer shifts in December? Both her paycheck and her SNAP benefits will be lower in December, leaving her struggling.
The solution is to send cash to all Americans, and recapture the transfer through the income tax system. Mathematically, an ex post tax is exactly the same as an ex ante phase out. Consider the CARES Act. A childless single individual with an income of $85,000 is $10,000 over the threshold, reducing her benefit by $500 and netting her $700. Giving her a check for $1200 and taxing her an additional 5% on income above $75,000 also nets her $700. As a practical matter, however, an ex post tax is more accurate because hindsight is 20-20. Lesson two from the CARES Act is that universal payments offset by taxes are superior to ex ante means-testing.
Provide Regular Payments
Third, the CARES Act provides one lump sum payment, with struggling Americans wondering whether Congress will act again. This is a missed opportunity: Studies show that families receiving SNAP benefits face challenges planning for even a month at a time. Lesson three is that guaranteed monthly or bi-weekly payments – as a true UBI would provide — would help households plan and provide some peace of mind amidst this uncertainty.
Provide Equal Payments to Children and Adults
Finally, the CARES Act provides a smaller benefit to children than adults. This is nonsensical. A single parent with two children faces greater hardship than a married couple with one child, as she has the same number of mouths to feed with fewer earners. Further, social science evidence suggests that augmenting family income has positive long-run consequences for children. Lesson four from the CARES Act – the empirical case for a UBI is strongest for families with children.
It’s Better to Be Overly, not Underly, Generous
The Act’s direct cash payments are a step in the right direction. But they demonstrate that not all cash assistance plans are created equal. Uniform and periodic payments to all – regardless of age and one’s relationship to the workforce – is the best way to protect Americans’ economic health, pandemic or not. This is not the time to be stingy or moralistic in our assistance. Better to err on the side of being overly generous now, especially when we can correct that error later through the tax system. Errors that result in withholding aid from those who need it, alas, might not be so easy to correct.