COVID, “Stimulus”, “Relief”, “Survival”, and word choice

People (or more precisely, pundits, politicians, and reporters) keep talking about the CARES act and the current deliberations in Congress as being about “a stimulus” or “stimulus checks”, etc., though some in the left wing of the Democratic party (including Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have started insisting on calling them “survival checks”, but I see hardly anyone using the term “relief”, and I wonder why that is.

On the one hand, the last time the government spent a lot of money all at once (or in a relatively short time) to try to help as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, was the ARRA under Obama, in response to the Great Recession, and that was constantly discussed as an “economic stimulus” bill, so in that way it makes some sense that the word “stimulus” would be sticky. On the other hand, “stimulus” and “relief” have different objects. You “stimulate” an economy; you give “relief” to a person. And of course you help a person “survive”.

I wonder if some politicians consider “survival” a more “marketable” word, a way to sidestep debates about moral hazard and so forth, because it implies an emergent, temporary crisis. If someone is in the path of an oncoming car, or is about to drown or fall off a roof or has been stung by a bee and needs their Epi-Pen, why, of course anyone would help them survive. If the economy — and it’s an article of faith in modern American politics, an axiom not to be questioned, that The Economy is an independent and unruly force that must be appeased at all costs — needs stimulus, why, we can pick and choose which economists we listen to about what form that stimulus should take, and decide we like the plan where it’s all tax credits and business loans.

To offer relief implies caring about people, and not just whether they’re barely existing, but whether they’re doing well. One needs relief from hardship, from suffering, from deprivation, from worry and stress. That’s an ongoing, maybe indefinite problem, and a problem of human empathy, not the abstract, imaginary machine-god of The Economy simply demanding that the numbers go up.

Right now people don’t need “stimulus”. People don’t have jobs, their bills and rents and mortages are coming due or overdue, and it’s not safe to be around other people. We’ve known since March what the right thing was to do, all along, and the government (which is to say, mainly Republicans, who control most of the veto points; maybe Democrats wouldn’t have done a good job either, but we know that many of them have at least argued for doing better, and we know the Republicans actually didn’t do the right things) has refused to. We should have had ongoing, monthly, non-means-tested, no-strings-attached relief checks to every person in the country, forgiveness of all federal student loan debt, cancellation of rents and mortgages (in the latter case, if necessary, by extending the mortgage terms by the number of months cancelled) and prohibition of eviction and foreclosure, massive federal investment into developing good practices for remote learning, even more massive investment — and worldwide collaboration — into coordinated research efforts for treatments and vaccines, federalizing production of masks and PPE if necessary, not scuppering the plan the USPS already had to deliver masks to everyone, and mobilizing the National Guard to distribute supplies, food, and medicine all over the country, to make sure everyone could safely and comfortably stay home until it was safe.

We didn’t do the right things, and a crisis became an ongoing, enormous catastrophe, and hundreds of thousands of people are needlessly dead—over 320,000 officially, but that’s well understood to be an undercount. If you look at general excess-death figures, and consider how many people died of COVID without getting diagnosed, and how many died of other causes because the health care system was overloaded, or because they didn’t seek enough care soon enough because they were afraid of COVID or because they’d lost their jobs and health coverage due to COVID, it’s hard not to conclude that the true number is probably already over 400,000. People don’t need “stimulus”, and they don’t need bare “survival”, they need relief.

Author: Scott Madin

I'm interested in all kinds of things.