Dems Say Trump Sitting on Billions in Coronavirus Testing Money

Dems Say Trump Sitting on Billions in Coronavirus Testing Money

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Plus, stimulus may have prevented a surge in poverty
Monday, June 22, 2020

Dems Say Trump Sitting on Billions in Covid Testing Money
The Trump administration is sitting on nearly $14 billion in funding provided by Congress to help states with coronavirus testing and contract tracing, two top Democrats said Sunday, calling on the administration to distribute the money “immediately.”

Congress in April approved $25 billion to ramp up testing and tracing and another $2 billion to cover free testing for the uninsured. “While it has been months since these funds were first appropriated, the Administration has failed to disburse significant amounts of this funding, leaving communities without the resources they need to address the significant challenges presented by the virus,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

The senators wrote that the administration has full discretion regarding more than $8 billion of the $25 billion in funding but has not released a plan to distribute the money. “It is critical that the Administration disburse the $8 billion immediately with an emphasis on addressing two major unmet needs: contact tracing and collecting data on COVID-19 racial and ethnic disparities,” they wrote.

The senators also said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to award nearly $4 billion that could be used for surveillance and contact tracing efforts.

In a response provided to The Washington Post, HHS said it has distributed $14 billion of the $25 billion but that Congress had failed to give the agency clear and specific guidance on how to spend the rest. “Now members [of Congress] are contacting HHS with their individual priorities and complaining the dollars are not spent to their wishes,” Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the agency, told the Post. “Regardless, HHS is committed to working with Congress to ensure the healthcare delivery system gets the support needed at this time.”

The Democratic letter comes after President Trump on Saturday told supporters at his campaign rally in Tulsa that he had asked officials to slow down coronavirus testing. After saying that the United States has now tested 25 million people, Trump added: "When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people; you're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’"

Critics quickly called that another example of Trump putting his personal political interests above the health and safety of the nation, but administration officials have downplayed those remarks, saying they were made in jest, were “tongue-in-cheek” or were just “a passing observation.”

In an interview with Scripps News on Monday, the president refused to directly answer whether he had instructed staff to slow down testing. “If we did slow it down, we wouldn't show nearly as many cases,” Trump said. “Frankly, I think we're way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth. We've done too good a job … The reason we have more cases [is] because we do more testing than any other country by far.”

Public health experts say that the recent surge in cases seen in many U.S. states is not just the result of increased testing.

Coronavirus Stimulus May Have Prevented a Surge in Poverty
Despite an extraordinary rise in unemployment during the coronavirus crisis, the level of poverty in the U.S. has remained steady or even fallen slightly thanks to the unprecedented increase in federal relief spending, according to new studies reviewed by Jason DeParle of The New York Times.

Researchers at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University found that the roughly $500 billion Congress authorized in the CARES Act for additional safety net spending helped prevent millions of people from falling into poverty. About half of that funding is dedicated to the $600-per-week increase in unemployment benefits and other enhancements to jobless benefits (see the chart below).

With the relief spending, the researchers projected the poverty rate will rise slightly this year to 12.7%, up from 12.5% before the pandemic. Without the spending, the rate would have climbed to 16.3%, with roughly 12 million more people becoming impoverished.

“Right now, the safety net is doing what it’s supposed to do for most families — helping them secure a minimally decent life,” said Zachary Parolin, one of the researchers. “Given the magnitude of the employment loss, this is really remarkable.’’

A separate study found that the surge in federal spending actually lowered the poverty rate as poorer households saw an increase in income. Using a different definition of poverty, researchers at the University of Chicago and Notre Dame found that the 12-month poverty rate fell from 10.9% in January and February to 8.6% in April and May.

What’s next?
The researchers emphasize that despite the better-than-expected estimates on poverty, millions of Americans continue to face serious hardships. Some workers have been unable to access payments they are entitled to receive, and the disbursement of aid has been uneven and sometimes unpredictable.

More significantly, much of the increased safety net spending is temporary, with the enhanced unemployment benefits slated to expire at the end of July. While policymakers are still debating what comes next, it’s almost certain that the extraordinary spending authorized by Congress will decline as the economy reopens, potentially setting the stage for a significant increase in poverty if the recovery is sluggish and unemployment remains elevated for an extended period of time.

For more details, see the studies here and here, and The New York Times article here.

Trump Admin Agrees to Disclose More Details on PPP Bailout Loans
Facing congressional pressure, the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration said Friday that they will disclose details of most loans made through the Paycheck Protection Program, the $660 billion coronavirus rescue package for small businesses.

The Small Business Administration will provide names and other details of companies and nonprofits that received loans of $150,000 or more, which the administration says accounts for about 75% of the loan dollars approved. Loan amounts will be given in ranges rather than exact amounts. But the new policy will only apply to a minority of the more than 4.6 million loan recipients, as borrowers with loans below $150,000 will not be identified, though some general information, such as zip codes and industry types, will be released.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had sparked controversy last week when he said that details of the loans would be proprietary and confidential. Mnuchin said the new agreement with the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Small Business Committee “will strike the appropriate balance of providing public transparency, while protecting the payroll and personal income information of small businesses, sole proprietors, and independent contractors.”

A critic, Danielle Brian of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, charged that the new policy falls short. “This is absolutely not enough,” Brian said. “By grouping the loan amounts [into ranges] we’re still not going to have the kind of information we need to ensure that money is going to the right people ... those who really need it.”

The PPP, which has made more than 4.6 million loans worth $514 billion, is scheduled to stop accepting applications at the end of June.

Chart of the Day
Epidemiologists talk about “bending the curve” – the process of bringing infections under control during an epidemic, with the graph of new cases changing from a positive to a negative slope. As this chart indicates, the U.S., unlike many of its peers, is not succeeding in this task. “Many countries have bent the curve, the US not yet,” Max Roser of Oxford University said Monday.

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