COVID-19 is a public health challenge, but as the pandemic goes on, it's clearly an economic crisis, too.
A survey of Portland downtown businesses in September found over 20 businesses had permanently closed and over 80 retail locations were not occupied. That same month, about 100,000 area residents were unemployed, which is about twice as many people as in September 2019.
To help people across America, Congress passed an emergency relief package in March that gave direct payments of $1,200 to most adults and $500 to most children. In December, the House and Senate agreed on a second relief package that will deliver another $600 to most adults in the coming weeks.
During discussions of both of these packages, members of the Republican-led Senate, the Democratic-controlled House, and the Trump administration all put forth ideas for direct cash payments to Americans. "We need cash in the hands of affected families,'' Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said this spring. In December, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, called for a direct payment of $1,200 per adult.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, has spoken up in favor of cash payments, too: "Congress must once again come together to provide assistance. … The best way to provide that help is with a monthly direct cash payment."
We're encouraged to see the broad agreement that during a crisis, it helps to put cash in people's pockets and let them spend it how they see fit.
When the incoming Congress turns its attention to climate change — another looming crisis — it should not forget this lesson: Direct cash payments are a simple, transparent and fair way to support Americans when economic winds are shifting.
Climate change demands that we stop emitting greenhouse gases, which are trapping excess heat in our atmosphere and upsetting our planet's delicate balance. America needs to move from a fossil fuel-based economy to a clean energy economy. That will be a major change, but it should not be an acute crisis like we're in now. By planning to give cash payments to Americans, we can ensure a healthy economy while making a gentle transition to a clean energy future.
Here's how: Congress could put a price on carbon pollution, driving our economy away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy sources, and it could rebate that money as an equal cash payment, or "dividend," to all Americans each month.
Cash payments put Americans in the driver's seat because they are empowered to decide how to spend it. This is especially important for low- and middle-income Americans, who might otherwise struggle with cost increases as we shift to a clean energy economy. When dividends are given to everyone, low- and middle-income Americans benefit dramatically.
Finally, cash dividends are transparent and easy to track, unlike tax offsets. That visibility helps people and our elected officials stay focused on the problem at hand: right now, the pandemic. Soon, climate change.
It's clear that money in the hands of Americans helps keep our economy running. That's why Congress and the president used this tool in March and returned to it in December as the crisis continued. When we've dealt with COVID-19, let's use that same tool to combat climate change.
Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizens' Climate Lobby. Kelsey Allen is a member of the Portland chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.