America’s billionaires have added a staggering $1.1 trillion to their collective wealth since the pandemic began. Their combined fortunes now sit at $4.1 trillion — $1.7 trillion more than the amount of wealth held by the bottom half of Americans.
Meanwhile, the country’s poverty rate increased by 2.4 percentage points in the latter half of 2020 — the largest increase in poverty since the 1960s. And to think that Senate Republicans are decrying a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill as too expensive.
Please. America’s billionaires alone could finance most of that bill, just with the increase in their wealth over the last 10 months. An emergency wealth tax that used their $1.1 trillion windfall to pay for the COVID survival plan would put these billionaires back to where they were 10 months ago (still very comfortable, to say the least) while helping the rest of America survive.
This is the sort of trickle-down economics that could actually work. What do you think?
The number of new unemployment claims filed last week jumped by 181,000 the week before to 965,000, the largest increase since the beginning of the pandemic.
It was the largest number of new unemployment claims since August.
An additional 284,000 claims were filed for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the insurance for gig and self-employed workers.
The weekly report is President Trump’s last before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. Biden will inherit a labor market badly weakened by the coronavirus pandemic and an economic recovery that appears to have stalled: 140,000 people lost their jobs in December, the first decline in months, with the U.S. still down millions of jobs since February.
The dire numbers will serve as a backdrop for Biden as he formally unveils an ambitious stimulus package proposal on Thursday, which could top $1 trillion, and is expected include an expansion of the child tax credit, a $2,000 stimulus payment, and other assistance for the economy.
Democrats were already using the weak labor to argue about the necessity of more aid.
Economists say that the economy’s struggles could be explained, in part, by the delay Congress allowed between the summer, when many fiscal aid programs expired and December, when lawmakers finally agreed on a new package after months of stalemate.
The number of new jobless claims has come down since the earliest days of the pandemic, but remains at a extremely high level week in and week out.
The total number of continuing people in any of the unemployment programs at the end of the year was 18.4 million, although officials have cautioned that the number is inflated by accounting issues and duplicate claims.
The increase in claims is not entirely unexpected. As the aid package passed by Congress in December kicks in, including a $300 a week unemployment supplement, some economists expected that to result in more workers filing claims.
The economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first reported losses since April, as the unemployment rate remained steady at 6.7 percent.
Economists expected a small jobs gain of nearly 50,000. The drop is the latest sign of a weakening economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. All in all, the economy remains about 10 million jobs below its pre-pandemic levels.
“There’s not much comfort to be taken from the stable unemployment rate, given that millions of Americans have left the labor force with nearly 11 million listed as officially out of work,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com.
“Between the human and economic tolls taken by the pandemic, these are some of the darkest hours of this soon-to-be yearlong tragedy.”
The biggest losses were concentrated in leisure and hospitality, a sector particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, which lost an astonishing 498,000 jobs.
State and local government payrolls shed 51,000 jobs. Congress deferred passing state and local aid in its latest COVID-19 relief bill.
But the overall loss would have been worse had it not been for gains in professional and business services, which added 161,000 jobs; retail trade, which added 120,500 jobs; and construction, which added 51,000.
Some demographic groups have been hit harder by the economic downturn.
The unemployment rate for Hispanics rose to 9.3 percent in December, while Black unemployment remained elevated at 9.9 percent. The rate for whites was 6 percent, and for Asians it was 5.9 percent.
Over a third of jobless people have been unemployed for over 27 weeks.
How Democratic wins in Georgia affect the odds on 3 health care policy proposals.
Their Senate majority will be slim as can be, and their margin for error in the House is also quite small. So it’s not going to be easy to get anything done. But it seems likely that the Biden White House and a Democratic Congress will try to pass legislation to expand health coverage.
Regarding what Democrats’ health care agenda would look like if the party enjoyed full control of Congress and the White House, a senior party official told reporters this fall: “If we don’t take full advantage of this moment, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”
The question is how big they will go. A lengthy health care section will likely be part of any new Covid-19 relief and recovery bill. But will that be the end of it, or do Democrats want to try to pass another health care plan through budget reconciliation? Given Senate rules, that process is probably their best chance of passing a major bill.
Taking a cue from my Future Perfect colleagues and their 21 predictions for 2021, I thought I would lay out some of my expectations for the coming two years of health policy. These projections are based on my own reporting, but they are not meant to be definitive — and nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. It’s more like a list of issues I’ll be watching.
Democrats will expand eligibility for Obamacare subsidies: 85 percent chance
Democrats could attempt to take two bites at the health care apple: first as part of a Covid-19 relief bill, and second in a budget reconciliation package that can pass with a bare majority. I think there is a very strong chance both attempts would end up with provisions expanding eligibility for insurance tax subsidies.
The $2.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House, a likely starting point for Covid-19 negotiations between the House and the Senate, would have made anybody currently on unemployment insurance eligible for premium tax credits. That would help people who have lost their employer-sponsored coverage afford a new health care plan. A provision like that is likely to become part of whatever Covid-19 bill Congress comes up with.
A reconciliation bill could make that change permanent and universal. Back in spring 2020, Senate Democrats released a list of their health care priorities in response in response to Covid-19. At the top was a plan to raise the current cutoff for Obamacare subsidies, which stands at 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Under current law, anybody with an annual income above that threshold, which is about $51,000 for an individual or $87,000 for a family of three, is ineligible for any assistance. Democrats have introduced plans to expand eligibility, either by doubling the income cap to 800 percent of the federal poverty level (like in this bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) or by eliminating it entirely so that nobody pays more than a fixed percentage of their income on health insurance (as President-elect Joe Biden proposed). Democrats could also try to make low-income people in states that have not expanded Medicaid eligible for tax credits to buy private coverage.
The people squeezed under Obamacare have been the ones ineligible for the law’s financial aid. Expanding eligibility could insure up to 4 million people, and it seems like the bare minimum Democrats would want to do on health care with their new power.
The public option won’t be part of a Democratic health care bill: 75 percent chance
Much like the 2009 debate over Obamacare, a new government insurance plan would probably be the most hotly debated proposal if Democrats try to approve a major health care bill. Biden embraced the public option in his campaign, but passing it won’t be easy — in fact, I think it’s more likely than not that it doesn’t happen.
One problem for a public option is budget reconciliation. Unless Democrats are willing to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster, they’ll have to use this special procedural tool in order to pass a bill with just 51 votes.
But budget reconciliation comes with limits on what provisions can be included, narrowly targeted to federal spending, and creating this new program may not qualify. Capital Alpha, a health care policy analysis group, thinks there is “virtually zero chance” a public option like that proposed by Biden during his campaign would be enacted because it likely doesn’t satisfy the reconciliation rules.
Progressives will push Democratic leadership to be as aggressive in pursuing a public option as possible, including in how they handle those procedural limits. But the moderate Senate Democrats who will ultimately dictate what the final package will look like have sounded ambivalent about the public option, and Democrats are wary of the party getting dragged into a messy health care fight.
Support for a public option would be substantial — about 70 percent of Americans say they’re for it, polls show — but so would the opposition. The health care industry will surely mobilize against the plan if Democrats look serious about pursuing it.
I suspect that, either because the moderates rule it out from the start or Democratic leaders balk at a drawn-out health care debate, politics will take the policy off the table.
Democrats will approve Medicare negotiations for prescription drugs: 55 percent chance
Democrats have campaigned for several election cycles now on a promise to give Medicare more power to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies. This promise was a part of the drug pricing bill that House Democrats passed in the last Congress, a plan that was estimated to cut federal spending by $456 billion over 10 years.
Savings are the reason the policy could be handy for Democrats in crafting a budget reconciliation plan. Democrats will need to include provisions that save the government money to help pay for the new provisions that cost money, like expanding eligibility for tax subsidies.
“We have long believed that pharma faces the greatest risk of drug pricing reforms in conjunction with Democrats’ efforts to expand coverage,” Capital Alpha wrote in a recent analysis.
Those twin incentives — delivering on a campaign promise and finding offsets — could help overcome what would surely be fierce industry opposition.
But the politics of drug pricing have shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is why I think there’s only a slightly better than even chance that Congress will approve Medicare negotiations. Pharma has delivered the Covid-19 vaccines in record time, improving the industry’s relationship with the public in the process. This, in turn, has lowered expectations among the experts for how aggressive Democrats will be on drug prices.
“I think now you don’t have all those stories about insulin and EpiPen, plus you have positive stories about vaccines and other drugs,” Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told me in December. “You don’t have as fertile an environment for more extreme drug measures.”
Thus, my feeling that the odds for Medicare negotiations are closer to 50/50.
Twenty states and dozens of localities increased their minimum wage on Friday, giving a financial boost to many frontline workers during the pandemic.
New Mexico will see the largest jump, adding $1.50 to its hourly minimum and bringing it up to $10.50. Arkansas, California, Illinois and New Jersey will each increase their minimum wages by $1.
Alaska, Maine and South Dakota will increase wages by just 15 cents an hour, while the rate in Minnesota will rise by half that, at 8 cents, to $10.08 an hour.
Additional increases are scheduled for elsewhere this year, with most changes taking effect on July 1.
Low-income earners, like much of the country’s workforce, have seen their wages remain relatively stagnant for decades when inflation is taken into account. Proponents say the new raises will help reduce poverty and offer much-needed pay hikes to some of the most vulnerable workers.
“Minimum wage increases income levels, reduces poverty, so I think it’s pretty clear that it improves conditions in the lower end of the wage distribution,” said Daniel Kuehn a research associate at The Urban Institute.
Localities are also boosting their minimum pay. Flagstaff, Ariz., will see wages rise from $13 an hour to $15, as will Burlingame, Calif.
In some municipalities, the increases are dependent on business size. Hayward, Calif., for example, will follow the same wage hike as Burlingame, but employers who 25 or fewer workers will need to raise wages from $12 an hour to $14.
Varying minimum wages across localities, Kuehn said, lets governments take into account different cost-of-living conditions.
“I think the ideal policy would include a lot of local variation, but that doesn’t mean a federal floor isn’t helpful,” he said.
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009. In recent years, the goal of a $15 minimum wage has become a standard progressive policy.
House Democrats in July 2019 passed a bill that would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 gradually through 2025, but the measure died in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“While families work hard to make ends meet, their cost of living has surged to unsustainable highs, inflation has eaten nearly 20 percent of their wages and the GOP’s special interested agenda has left them behind,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at the time.
“No one can live with dignity on a $7.25 an hour wage,” she added.
The issue is back in the political spotlight again with Tuesday’s runoff elections in Georgia that will determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years.
The Democratic challengers are arguing that the federal minimum wage will only increase if they win both races.
“If the federal minimum wage kept up with the cost of living, it would be even higher than $15,” Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff said last week. “The basic premise is that anybody in this country working a single full-time job should be bringing home enough money to sustain themselves and then some.”
But critics argue that minimum wage increases could slow job growth by raising labor costs for employers, an issue of particular concern during the fragile recovery from the coronavirus recession.
“A dramatic increase in the minimum wage even in good economic times has been shown to be harmful,” said Michael Saltsman, the managing director for the Employment Policy Institute, a think tank tied to the restaurant and hospitality industry.
“In the current climate, for many employers it could be the final nail in the coffin,” he added.
Saltsman argued that increasing anti-poverty programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit are better policies than wage increases. The tax credit essentially operates as a government subsidy for low-wage work, shifting the onus of paying the extra wages from businesses to taxpayers.
Kuehn said there is little evidence to suggest that small and gradual increases of the minimum wage have significant effects on employment.
“The minimum wage increase levels we see get passed are not large enough to have significant employment effects,” he said.
But he concedes that it’s harder to predict the effects of a quick nationwide boost toward $15.
“I think it’s important to note that since we’ve never had a federal increase of that magnitude, there’s a lot we don’t know,” he said. “With something of that size, you would worry about low-wage places like Mississippi or Alabama.”
A report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in 2019 projected that a gradual increase to $15 through 2025 would mean “1.3 million workers who would otherwise be employed would be jobless in an average week in 2025.”
But it also specified a range of possible outcomes, including no job losses on the low end and as many as 3.7 million jobs lost on the high end.
The report found that 27 million people would see higher income, and that the poorest families would have wages rise as much as 5.2 percent.
Researchers such as Kuehn are adamant that businesses can handle increasing wages at moderate levels, even in the midst of a global health crisis.
“It certainly doesn’t make businesses’ lives easier, but businesses aren’t struggling right now because of wage costs,” he said.
“They’re hurting because of the pandemic.”
More than 350,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the U.S., with another surge of cases and deaths expected in the coming weeks as a result of smaller holiday gatherings.
The country reached the grim milestone early Sunday morning, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. More than 20 million people have been infected since the pandemic began nearly one year ago, according to the tally.
Public health experts attributed a nationwide spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in early December to a large number of Americans traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, and pleaded with citizens to stay home for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
Multiple states have reported a record number of cases, including North Carolina and Arizona, according to the Associated Press. New York hit 1 millions cases total as of Saturday, becoming the fourth state to do so along with Texas, Florida and California.
Last month, federal officials approved two vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna for emergency use. The first round of doses have been administered to doctors, nurses and other front line healthcare workers as well as nursing home residents.
The elderly and other patients deemed “high risk” are the next group of Americans slated to receive vaccines with public health officials estimating younger and healthy citizens can expect to be eligible for vaccination toward the middle to end of spring.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention last week reported more than 2 million people in America have been vaccinated, far short of the 20 million figure the federal government initially said it hoped to top by this time. That number has since grown to 4.2 million as of Sunday.
“We would have liked to have seen it run smoothly and have 20 million doses into people today by the end of the 2020, which was the projection,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor. “Obviously, it didn’t happen, and that’s disappointing.”
Fauci said a targeted approach in assisting local governments in vaccine rollout programs is the best way for the federal government to make up for lost time.
“There really has to be a lot more effort in the sense of resources for the locals, namely, the states, the cities, the counties, the places where the vaccine is actually going into the arms of individuals,” Fauci said.
Amid the surge in the ranks of the unemployed during the pandemic, another crucial problem in the labor market has gone mostly overlooked: Workers are calling out sick in record numbers this year.
Whether it’s because they have Covid-19 themselves, are worried about getting it or are taking care of someone who already has it, the number of workers who’ve missed days on the job has doubled in the pandemic.
What’s more, unlike the jobless rate, which has steadily declined from its April peak, the rate of abseenteism — as it is called by economists — has remained stubbornly high. Almost 1.8 million workers were absent in November because of illness, nearly matching the record 2 million set back in April, according to Labor Department data.
These lost days of work are sapping an economic recovery that’s been progressing in fits and starts for much of the past several months. While some indicators have improved markedly, others such as retail sales and consumer spending and incomes have weakened as the pandemic rages on and local governments impose fresh restrictions on businesses and travel.
Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Plc, said that the vaccine could start driving down absenteeism by the second quarter. Until then, he said, the missed work is leading to supply chain disruptions.
Absenteeism “could lead to shortages, it could lead to higher prices and more restrained output,” Gapen said.
With about 1.5 million new cases per week and deaths at a record pace, employee absenteeism may remain elevated for some time, especially in early 2021 before vaccines are widely distributed and with the rollout in the U.S. moving slower than government officials expected.
While the Labor Department data tracks people currently in the labor force who are out sick, a separate survey by the Census Bureau captures an even wider view of the challenge. Its latest Household Pulse Survey — based on responses in late November and early December — estimates that more than 11 million people weren’t working because of the virus. The figures also include those who refrained from working because they were worried about getting or spreading the virus, and those caring for someone with symptoms.
The effects of missing workers are especially concentrated in manufacturing. Absenteeism, combined with short-term shutdowns to sanitize facilities and difficulties in returning and hiring workers, limit the sector’s growth potential, according to Timothy Fiore, chair of the Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing Business Survey Committee.
The group’s gauge of factory activity grew at a slower pace in November, with the employment component falling back to a level that indicates contraction.
“It’s not a lack of work,” Fiore said on a recent call with reporters, noting absenteeism especially for low- to medium-skill roles. “It’s a lack of people.”
In addition to temporarily absent workers, the manufacturing sector has 525,000 job openings, the most in Labor records back to 2000.
Auto plants are feeling the effects. General Motors Co. put white-collar employees on the production floor in August to cope with high absenteeism amid strong demand. Volkswagen AG Chief Financial Officer Frank Witter has said high levels of missing staff left the automaker “at times struggling to get all the cars built for customer orders.”
U.S. businesses have reported that surging cases precipitated plant closings and infection fears, adding to labor challenges including absenteeism and attrition, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Beige Book summary of economic conditions. Manufacturers in the Chicago region have used overtime to make up for staff shortages, the Dec. 2 report said.
For office workers, 90% of professionals said before the pandemic they’d sometimes go to work sick, according to a 2019 study by staffing firm Accountemps. Covid changed the conversation, and more employees are staying home to protect themselves and others.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act earlier this year made the decision to stay home easier for some Americans by allowing two weeks of paid sick leave for certain employees. The law also allows leave for those unable to work because they must care for a child.
The latest stimulus bill, signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, includes an extension of the act through March 31, but makes paid leave voluntary for employers rather than mandatory as it was in the first iteration. That may continue the trend of workers staying home depending on how many employers choose to grant the leave.
The act, however, excludes essential workers, which means those employed at facilities such as meatpacking plants can’t take advantage of the policy. That in turn can lead to workplace outbreaks and further disrupt production.
With fewer employees at work, slaughter rates at U.S. meat plants fell in the third quarter. Tyson Foods Inc. Chief Executive Officer Dean Banks said on a recent earnings call that absenteeism has “increased the cost and complexity of our operations” and that the company expects that to continue in 2021.