Will Haskell: Strong, smart public policy is the only way back to economic stability

Will Haskell

Will Haskell

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

In the entirety of 2019, Connecticut’s Department of Labor processed 180,000 unemployment claims. In just the first 14 days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CT DOL received 220,000.

Our recent unemployment statistics are a stark reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing unprecedented financial hardship to our state and country. It will be up to municipal, state and federal leaders to form a plan for recovery.

First and foremost, we need to understand that this is a public health crisis with economic consequences, not an economic crisis in and of itself. Many of the “normal” indicators of a healthy economy — open businesses, strong consumer demand, high rates of travel — run counter to our public health goals.

Easing social distancing guidelines might get people back to work in the short-term, but it will also allow the virus to spread between population centers, leading to tens of thousands of cases, hundreds more deaths, and an even more dire economic outcome down the road. As commercially painful as it may be, intense social distancing is the only responsible path forward until at least the early summer.

Second, we need to recognize that a big, unusual problem like the COVID-19 virus will require big, unusual public policy responses. Already, the state of Connecticut has taken steps that would be unthinkable in a normal year. We’ve closed schools for weeks, placed strict limitations on how retail outlets can operate, and offered millions and millions in emergency loans for small businesses that we had not previously budgeted.

In the coming months, our response will need to be even larger. We need to significantly increase the funding and stability of our unemployment insurance program as it faces a historic burden. We should provide even more aid to our small businesses, many of which will simply not survive without direct government stimulus, and fortify our public health insurance marketplace for an influx of policyholders who have lost their employment. And we must do all of that with the understanding that federal aid will not be nearly sufficient to cover our actual need.

Making these necessary investments will require a new kind of political instinct. Expenditures that would have given legislators of both parties pause in a normal year will need to be made quickly and decisively. Now will not be the time for fighting over budgetary line items but for significant, strategic public investment. Partisanship and political opportunism must be pushed far from our minds.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that no single government policy or philanthropic venture will come close to putting our economy, our neighborhoods, and our lives back where they were before this outbreak. We are facing a long, difficult period of recovery. It is a significant challenge, but one that the people of Fairfield County are ready for.