Follow the money


The Senate passed the CARES Act — the largest stimulus bill (or disaster aid bill, if you prefer to call it that) in the history of our nation — on Wednesday night. After its members have 24 hours to read the bill, the House is expected to follow suit on Friday morning. President Trump has said he will sign it immediately.

The CARES Act, in addition to the two coronavirus response bills enacted earlier this month, will provide much-needed funds for our health care sector and public health infrastructure, to our struggling families and businesses, and state and local governments that in many parts of the country have been leading the response to the virus.  

The range of programs and services that the CARES Act will fund is remarkable. The summary of just the appropriations section is 22 pages long. 

Next comes implementation, which won’t necessarily be easy, fast, or equitably executed. It will likely take over a month before the bill’s direct payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child land in people’s bank accounts. 

Funds for a range of programs in the CARES Act, from the Child Care Development Block Grant ($3.5 billion) to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program ($900 million), will be provided through the states. That makes sense, as many state governments have a better sense than the federal government of where in their states funds need to be deployed. But some state governments aren’t efficient, and some states don’t have equity front of mind, meaning those who need the support most could be sidelined.

The advocates who fought for what should go in the bill can now turn their attention to the next emergency response bill, and hand the baton on the CARES Act to the organizers and advocates who are working in communities to ensure the neediest get their fair share. For the latter group of advocates to succeed, they’ll need to follow the money, from the federal government to their states, and in some cases, counties or cities, and put pressure on state and local policymakers to ensure that the funds are spent equitably and efficiently.

Knowing the timing of when CARES Act dollars will be distributed isn’t just important to strapped state and local governments. The philanthropic sector has stepped in quickly to respond to the current crisis, but the needs outstrip the resources of even the most well-endowed foundations. Knowing what funds will be arriving in communities and when they’ll be arriving, will give the philanthropic sector critical information they need to determine what they need to fund and for how long, so that they can pace their giving to serve as a bridge between immediate needs and eventual relief from federal support. This will enable them to budget some of their funds to support ongoing needs that aren’t being met by the federal government, such as addressing the economic impact of the crisis on undocumented immigrants.     

And after all of that gets figured out, we’ll move on to the next coronavirus response bill. After the Senate passed the CARES Act, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Senators they wouldn’t have to return to the Capitol until April 20. If the spread of the virus in Spain and Italy is any indication of what’s to come, he’ll need to call them back sooner.