To err is human; wanting to punish those who err is, unfortunately, also human. And at the moment, the U.S. economy is threatened not just by the coronavirus, but also by the American obsession with making sure that people don’t end up with more than they deserve. The CARES Act—the $2 trillion relief bill that Congress recently passed—promises onetime payments of up to $1,200 to most American adults. It also includes higher benefits for millions of people who suddenly find themselves unemployed. Yet aid to individuals makes up only about a quarter of the relief package, which goes out of its way to make sure that supposedly unworthy people don’t benefit—and channels money to Americans in byzantine ways, through preexisting systems that exclude a lot of people.
The simplest way to help Americans is to send out checks quickly. But under the CARES Act, poor families who did not file tax returns will not be getting stimulus money unless they file their returns retroactively.* Anyone working in the adult-entertainment industry or whose work is of a “prurient sexual nature” does not qualify for aid. Small-business owners who have been convicted of a felony are not eligible for a $350 billion loan program meant to protect their employees’ jobs. That entire program, which is to be administered by private banks, was thrown into disarray right from the start, as some banks refused to participate and others prioritized their own existing customers. The inequities in the CARES Act could have been worse; the initial Republican version of the law gave poor families half the amount that middle-class families would receive. But the $2 trillion bill could have also been a lot better; it omits a host of other programs that would have helped vulnerable people: student-loan cancellation, expanded health-care coverage, a monthly universal income, rent assistance.