D.E. Smoot

D.E. Smoot

Members of what was known once as the "world's greatest deliberative body" cast a symbolic vote this week for a pandemic relief package much slimmer than what colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives passed months ago.

The vote appeared to be more for show than anything else. There were no across-the-aisles negotiations, no efforts to find common ground on issues important to those reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

This public health crisis — the worst this country has experienced in at least a century and maybe longer — undermined the national economy. U.S. Labor Department data show about 29 million Americans still rely on jobless benefits of some type, and a U.S. Census Bureau survey found more than 25% of the respondents expect somebody in the household will experience a loss of income by January. 

The Household Pulse Survey, which inquired about respondents' financial well-being during the final weeks of August, found 64 million Americans were experiencing significant hardship. Almost a third of those who did respond said they struggled in August to pay their monthly household expenses, and about 10% said someone in the household lacked the food necessary to live an active and healthy life. 

About 5.4 million Americans, according to survey data, face the prospect of eviction or foreclosure during the next two months. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Thursday it terminated a program created by presidential authorization that provided an additional $300 a week to jobless Americans after pandemic unemployment benefit expired July 31. 

The extra money for displaced workers was available as grants awarded to states that applied for them and agreed to provide matching funds that would raise the weekly benefit to $400. Of the states that were approved, only 17 have made the technological upgrades necessary to get that money into the pockets of the unemployed. 

All this uncertainty and inaction erodes confidence in government and its ability to act in the people's best interest. Perhaps even worse is the apparent prioritization corporate profits over the individual and the public good. 

This is evident with the congressional stalemate with pandemic relief, which stalled primarily due to extended unemployment benefits and demands for a blanket waiver of liability for businesses. The government puts protections for workers and consumers on the back burner while it continues to prop up financial markets by keeping interest rates and purchasing corporate bonds. 

Those who favor withholding assistance from displaced workers believe more money is needed for businesses despite the evidence that tens of billions of dollars in pandemic aid have flowed into the coffers of corporate scallywags. Some of these same actors cried foul about the prospect of fraudulent unemployment claims costing tens of millions of dollars and let those funds evaporate.

Good Jobs First, in a report published this month, provides evidence showing a "significant number of CARES Act recipients have been penalized for serious corporate misconduct." Many of the penalties paid by the recipients of federal grants and low-interest loans were assessed for violations of the False Claims Act, which is used to penalize those who commit fraud against the federal government. 

Good Jobs First, which tracks government subsidies for businesses and violations, found more than 6,000 health care providers that paid penalties totaling $9 billion during the past decade also received pandemic relief worth $85 billion. Those companies secured federal grants and loans despite past violations that included accusations of defrauding Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Another 38,300-plus small businesses penalized to the tune of $3 billion for wage theft and workplace safety violations capitalized on $37 billion worth of loans available through pandemic-relief programs. And 147 colleges and universities — most of them for-profit enterprises penalized for deceptive marketing practices used to lure students who must take on debt to pay inflated tuition and fees — received grants worth $503 million.

Good Jobs First found 32 aviation companies in its Violation Tracker database that had secured pandemic-related grants and loans totaling $25 billion. Those companies paid penalties totaling $600 million during the past 10 years for workplace safety violations, settling discrimination claims, and one allegation of bribing foreign officials. 

This double standard undermines public trust in government. There is one thing that might erode it even further: revelations of the deliberate deceit about a disease that contributed to the needless loss hundreds of thousands of lives.

D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix. 

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