Congress has funneled trillions to coronavirus relief efforts. Where is that money going?

Congress has funneled trillions to coronavirus relief efforts. Where is that money going?

Congress has funneled trillions to coronavirus relief efforts. Where is that money going?

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Over the course of two months, Congress has thrown close to $3 trillion at stanching the economic blood-flow of the coronavirus pandemic — but with the job losses mounting, and the country mired in the worst downturn since the Great Depression, some lawmakers contend it’s not enough.

Even with the unprecedented injection of aid, the jobless rate in April hit 14.7 percent, the highest on record since the Great Depression. In the seven weeks since the nation's economy came to a near standstill, more than 33 million Americans have filed for first-time unemployment benefits, meaning the jobless rate will ly continue to climb in May.

Economists have forecast a sharp contraction in GDP in the second quarter, including Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who acknowledged that there may be an “unprecedented” drop in the second quarter.


On Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled a fifth stimulus package calling for more than $3 trillion in spending, with $1 trillion set aside for states and cities; so-called hazard pay for essential workers on the frontline of the virus outbreak; and another round of one-time $1,200 payments to individuals.

But Republicans are wary of another round of aid — the federal budget deficit could nearly quadruple this year, hitting $3.7 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office — with some suggesting they’d to see how the existing $3 trillion trickles through the economy before shoveling more cash at the crisis.

“We just want to make sure that before we jump back in and spend another few trillion of taxpayers’ money that we do it carefully,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”


Here’s a guide to where the stimulus money already signed into law by President Trump is going:

First relief bill: $8 billion 

At the beginning of March, Trump signed a bipartisan $8 billion deal to provide emergency funding to fight the outbreak of the virus. The bill included about $7.7 billion in discretionary spending to help vaccine development, research, equipment stockpiles and state and local health budgets.

Under the agreement, more than $2 billion would be allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than $3 billion would go toward a public health emergency fund and the National Institutes of Health Research. About $1.25 billion would be provided to help protect Americans living abroad.

Second relief bill: $192 billion 

In mid-March, lawmakers passed a bill to provide free testing for COVID-19, as well as extend paid sick and family leave; strengthen unemployment insurance; and increase food aid to alleviate the financial burden on some American families.


At the time, the government did not specify how much the legislation — known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — would cost. However, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it would add $192 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade.

The legislation created temporary coronavirus-related sick leave benefits paid by employers with fewer than 500 workers. Workers with the virus would receive their full wages if they were self-quarantining, or two-thirds of their pay when caring for a sick family member. It also provided $1.3 billion in emergency food funding.

Third relief bill (CARES Act): $2.2 trillion 

The biggest relief package ever passed in the U.S., the CARES Act shoveled cash toward all parts of the U.S. economy to counter the paralysis on activity, a result of stay-at-home measures adopted to mitigate the spread of the virus.


Most notably, the bill expanded unemployment benefits by $600 per week through July 31; sent a one-time payment of up to $1,200 for Americans earning less than $99,000; and established the Paycheck Protection Program.

Here’s a rough breakdown of the funding in the more than $2 trillion bill:

  • Expanding unemployment benefits and broadening which Americans are eligible to receive the cash: $268 billion 
  • Economic impact payments (cash checks for Americans): $293 billion 
  • Provides small business loans and grants, including setting up the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans of up to $10 million for businesses with fewer than 500 workers: $377 billion 
  • Support loans and loan guarantees for large businesses: $510 billion 
  • Assistance for state and local governments: $150 billion
  • Increase health-related spending, including money for hospitals: $153 billion
  • Support the safety net, such as increasing food stamps and funding for child nutrition programs: $42 billion 
  • Disaster assistance (expanding FEMA disaster assistance fund): $45 billion 
  • Increase education spending: $40 billion 
  • Support transportation providers and industries: $71 billion 
  • Reduce individual taxes, including loosening the cap on deductibility of charitable giving; providing temporary deduction for up to $300 of charitable donations; allow up to $100,000 to be withdrawn from retirement accounts penalty-free: $20 billion
  • Cut business taxes: $241 billion

Fourth relief bill: $484 billion

The most recent bill signed by Trump in April to blunt the economic pain from the virus included $310 billion to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program (which exhausted its initial $349 billion in funding within 13 days); $60 billion for the Small Business Administration disaster assistance loans and grants; $75 billion for hospitals struggling to cover costs; and $25 billion to ramp up testing efforts.



State and Local Governments Do Not Need Half a Trillion in COVID Relief

Congress has funneled trillions to coronavirus relief efforts. Where is that money going?

The American Rescue Plan currently making its way through Congress contains over $500 billion of aid to state and local governments. 

A number of analysts and commentators have questioned the need for this much additional aid.

While the economic downturn did take a toll on state and local revenue collections, that revenue decline has largely recovered on average — with some states doing better than others — and losses to date have mostly been covered by the $360 billion of federal aid to state and local entities enacted so far.

While more aid may indeed be needed, especially for the hardest hit state and local governments, it is not clear that assistance needs to be as large as what is currently under consideration.

The Federal Government Has Already Enacted More than $360 Billion of Aid

The $4.1 trillion (with a $3.4 trillion net cost) of COVID relief funds enacted so far includes hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments.

By our count, the Families First Act, the CARES Act, and the Response & Relief Act allocated more than $360 billion to state and local governments through higher Medicaid matching percentages, the Coronavirus Relief Fund, public school funding, and aid to transit authorities. More than $300 billion of those funds has already been committed, and at least $235 billion has been disbursed.

This $360 billion figure should be considered a low-end estimate.

It excludes between $150 billion to $200 billion allocated to state and local governments to cover disaster costs, community development, housing, health preparedness, vaccine administration, reimbursement of certain prior-law unemployment benefit costs, funding for public colleges and hospitals, and other similar spending. It also excludes $6.6 billion of loans to the State of Illinois ($3.2 billion) and New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority ($3.4 billion) issued by the Federal Reserve and supported by Treasury dollars. While a majority of these funds are for specific purposes and are not aid, the money is fungible and therefore portions of it could effectively serve as aid on top of our $360 billion estimate. 

Our estimate also excludes the indirect effects of COVID relief on state finances. The $585 billion of unemployment benefits, $460 billion of rebate checks, and the nearly $2.

5 trillion Gross Domestic Product (GDP) boost as a result of last year’s COVID relief bills substantially increased income and spending subject to state and local taxes.

 All told, state and local governments are more than half a trillion dollars better off as a result of the COVID relief legislation enacted so far.

On Average, State and Local Revenue Has Mostly Recovered 

Early in the pandemic, state and local governments appeared to be in danger of losing hundreds of billions of dollars — or by some estimates upwards of $1 trillion — in revenue.

 This worst-case scenario has thankfully been avoided, due in large part to the robust federal response and a relatively strong but uneven partial economic recovery.

While some state and local governments are still hurting, others are doing quite well and hardly any are doing as badly as feared.

While no complete estimates of state and local revenue exist, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) can help shed some light on state and local finances (the Urban Institute also has a fantastic dataset for state revenues).

Importantly, BEA's numbers for state and local revenue and expenditures are preliminary, are considered very rough, and are subject to significant uncertainty, so should be viewed with a wide error band.

Nevertheless, they can help provide broad indications on the fiscal health of state and local finances. 

 BEA's data, state and local tax collections fell by almost 5 percent in the second quarter of 2020 relative to the second quarter of 2019. Total revenue from April to December 2020, however, was roughly flat relative to 2019. Notably, revenue by the end of 2020 was up over 2 percent relative to the final quarter of 2019 (other estimates have been relatively similar).1 

At 2019 levels or even 2 percent above it, average revenue would still be significantly below trend — with some state and local governments in far worse shape than others. However, this level of revenue loss is no where near as bad as the 9 percent reduction that state and local treasuries experienced between mid-2008 and mid-2009.

Inclusive of federal aid, state and local governments actually had higher average receipts in 2020 than 2019. We estimate total state and local receipts were 10 percent higher in 2020 than 2019, including 6 percent higher on a fourth-quarter-to-fourth-quarter basis.

Meanwhile, spending remained relatively stable, rising by 2 percent on a year-over-year basis and 1 percent higher on a fourth-quarter-to-fourth-quarter basis, suggesting COVID-related costs have not surged net spending needs (though COVID-related needs may have crowded out other important priorities, contributing to layoffs at the state and local level).

Of course, these averages mask the huge disparity between states. Some state and local governments are doing better than others. Over the final three quarters of 2020, the Urban Institute estimates that 26 state governments saw general revenue declines while 21 states saw revenue gains (three were missing data). There are ly similar disparities at the local level.

States facing the largest revenue losses include Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, Texas, and Florida — with losses driven by the crash in oil prices, low tourism, and other state-specific factors.

While the data show large losses in Oregon, this appears to be due to a one-time “kicker” rebate that refunds past surpluses and is unrelated to the current crisis. Meanwhile, a number of states such as Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and South Dakota have experienced large revenue gains over the course of the pandemic.

 Though its revenue was flat in 2020, California is now facing a $25 billion surplus (originally $15 billion, with $10 billion more) thanks in part to a windfall from capital gains tax collections.

These revenue estimates ly overstate structural losses and understate gains, since revenue has risen since the earliest parts of the pandemic when “shelter in place” and similar rules were in effect. The estimates also exclude federal aid to state and local governments.

Even with many state and local governments still struggling, the overall outlook is much less dire than previously believed.

For example, Moody’s Analytics recently estimated that an additional $86 billion of aid is needed to cover revenue losses, while a number of experts at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have argued an additional $100 billion of aid is warranted.

 Even the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which has been a strong advocate of large state and local aid, estimates $225 billion of net revenue shortfalls (each of these estimates assume states will use their rainy day funds).

Importantly, these are net figures — and there is no easy way to use surpluses from healthy states to cover deficits in struggling localities. On the other hand, if additional fiscal stimulus and ongoing vaccinations lead to a full recovery by the end of 2021, needs could prove even lower.

The American Rescue Plan Would Pay Huge Windfalls

The American Rescue Plan would provide over $500 billion of aid to state and local governments (including the District of Columbia, tribes, and territories), including $350 billion of direct aid — $220 billion to state governments and $130 billion to local governments, nearly $130 billion for public schools, and $30 billion to transit authorities (as contained in the reconciliation package currently before Congress). These figures are a low estimate, since they don’t count other types of funding funneled to state and local governments, nor the indirect benefits of higher (taxable) unemployment benefits, checks, and other fiscal support. 

Much of this money would go to state and local governments with little or no need.

For example, despite its surpluses we estimate California governments would receive $60 billion, including $26 billion at the state level.

Similarly, we estimate Idaho, which is forecasting a record budget surplus of $600 million would receive around $3 billion, almost 50 percent of which would be allocated at the state level.  

Even states clearly in need may end up more than covering their losses. Florida, which is facing a $3.

3 billion revenue shortfall spanning two fiscal years would receive $25 billion of federal aid, including over $10 billion at the state level, and Illinois’ roughly $3 billion deficit would be more than matched by around $20 billion of federal aid, including around $7 billion at the state level.

Policymakers Should Right-Size State and Local Aid

Many state and local governments continue to suffer financially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

Additional aid would be wise, not only to support these states, but to prevent and help reverse the type of large-scale state and local layoffs that prolonged the last recession.

The size of this aid may need to be larger than aggregate estimates of need, since gross needs exceed net needs and it may be impossible to target spending as precisely as would be desirable.

However, there appears to be little justification for issuing more than half a trillion of aid, on top of the $360 billion already offered.

These excessive funds will unnecessarily add to the federal debt or crowd out other priorities (such as continuing emergency unemployment benefits beyond August).

They could also lead many states to enact damaging tax cuts or spending programs that ultimately undermine their long-term finances.

It would be therefore be wise for Congress to scale back the size of its state and local aid, or issue it over time conditioned on state and local needs.

In our Break the Glass plan, we proposed a two-sided trigger which would increase the federal Medicaid match for states when they face low rates of employment, while reducing the match when state economies are booming.

A proposal this would assure states receive the support they need, without paying windfalls that ultimately weaken state and federal finances over the long term.

1 Our estimates of 2020 collection are  Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data, which is rough and subject to revision. BEA data for the fourth quarter of 2020 excludes corporate tax collections, but this represents a relatively small portion of state tax receipts — we assumed corporate tax collections similar to the fourth quarter of 2019.


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