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Biden's COVID-19 relief plan is BIG thinking

President-elect Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic

President-elect Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic during an event at The Queen theater on Thursday in Wilmington, Del. Credit: AP / Matt Slocum

For millions of Americans, the most pressing danger of this fraught moment has come to their kitchen tables, as they try to pay their bills, feed their families and keep their homes.

The numbers are staggering, the stories heartbreaking. More than a million individuals filed unemployment claims for the first time last week, the first time such claims rose above a million since July. In total, more than 18 million people are collecting unemployment benefits.

And such a massive problem requires a massive, urgent solution.

That’s why President-elect Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan is the right response at this moment. It combines fighting the virus itself with putting money in Americans’ pockets, assisting state and local governments, helping small businesses, raising the minimum wage, and offering all-important paid sick and family medical leave, nutrition and rent assistance, and more. Still to come from Biden is a large spending proposal for the nation’s infrastructure.

It’s a stunning plan in its scope, but it’s also refreshing in its attention to a wide swath of Americans.

It also marks a departure from the last time Biden was involved in a huge stimulus effort, when President Barack Obama produced a stimulus plan that was much smaller, and focused on job creation programs more than individual payments. Obama’s strategy was based in part on the need to get something passed. And Biden clearly recognizes that he may face an uphill climb to make that happen this time around.

But he also seems ready for whatever battles may come his way.

The Biden plan starts with $400 billion for testing and vaccination, particularly critical as the supply of vaccines trickling to the states is an enormous hurdle. It won’t be easy to meet Biden’s goal of providing 100 million vaccines in 100 days, but doing so could put the nation on a path toward reopening its economy and returning to some degree of normalcy. Biden’s strategy, released Friday, includes expanding vaccination sites and ramping up supply by utilizing the Defense Production Act, and improving communication with the states and the public has to be an improvement over the failure we are now confronting.

Biden also recognizes that we must start Americans on a better economic path right away. That’s why more than $1 trillion is going directly to families, starting with an additional $1,400 to individuals and their children in direct payments, which comes on top of the $600 they received previously. While some on the left sought more, Biden’s proposal should be a sufficient economic jump-start, while also remaining at a level Republicans should be able to agree to stomach.

Biden is also creating an important safety net and some reassurance for unemployed Americans who so far have had to rely on a deeply divided Congress to keep their checks coming. An increase in federal unemployment benefits to $400 a week, an extension of them until at least September, and an effort to tie them to the nation’s economic performance, with automatic increases if the unemployment rate rises further, all remove some of the uncertainty since the pandemic’s start.

Fold in rental and food assistance and a pledge to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and there’s something in the plan for nearly everyone, thankfully including states like New York left out of Congress’ last stimulus effort. State and local governments will receive a desperately needed $350 billion.

The total price tag, of course, is huge, but Biden is right to say that the cost of inaction is larger.

Still to come: Biden’s plan to rebuild America’s roads, bridges and rails. We’ve waited four years for an infrastructure plan that never came, so we’re willing to wait a few more weeks for this one. There’s no way to revive the national or local economy without getting people back to work and building again. New York is poised to be an enormous part of that progress, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s state of the state addresses last week purposefully focused on green energy and infrastructure. Long Island is set to be a huge beneficiary, from the wind farms off our coast to the work at and around Penn Station that ultimately will aid Nassau and Suffolk county commuters. Long Island will not thrive if New York City fails. So, the entire region’s recovery will depend on economic development, construction, and improvements to transit and transportation. But we’ll need Biden’s help to get that work going.

Too many people are hurting for Biden’s critical plans to get stuck in a congressional morass. But he also seems ready to make his case by speaking directly to the American people, expressing an understanding of what they’re going through, and offering a promise:

"We will never give up, and we will come back. We’ll come back together."

Revitalizing words, at a debilitating moment. Now, Biden and his congressional colleagues must find a way to make them true.

The editorial board