In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis, U.S. policymakers have approved over $12 trillion in fiscal and monetary support. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a nonpartisan organization that educates the public about fiscal policy and its impact, is the only organization tracking what happens to every dollar.
In August 2020, CRFB launched an interactive site, the COVID Money Tracker, that follows every major action taken by Congress, the Federal Reserve, and the executive branch in response to the pandemic and recession. A “sunburst” visualization tool provides a high-level overview of money that has been allocated, disbursed, or added to the deficit, while click–through segments provide more in-depth information (how much money went to a certain state, for example).
Senior Vice President and Policy Director Marc Goldwein says CRFB’s goal is to provide insight into a complex and often confusing process.
“A lot of people are following the money, but those efforts are siloed,” explains Goldwein. “They look at just the Paycheck Protection Program, for example, or only the stimulus checks. What we’re trying to do is both provide that big overall picture of what’s happening while letting people dig down to the minutiae level of detail.”
The COVID Money Tracker is updated weekly. While a significant portion of COVID response efforts have come from the Federal Reserve, which has been authorized to allocate nearly $6 trillion to loan programs, asset purchases, and liquidity measures, Congress has also enacted over $6 trillion in spending, loans, and tax relief.
Goldwein was at CRFB during the Great Recession and worked on a similar project that informs the COVID Money Tracker today. A decade ago, CRFB’s Stimulus.org tracked federal appropriations, along with Federal Reserve assistance programs, bank failures, Federal Deposit Insurance Commission takeovers, and how the U.S. Treasury Department carried out its Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Under the Obama administration, the federal government also ran its own tracking website, Recovery.gov, but Goldwein said that site only tracked spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Government tracking websites have the same limitations today. USASpending.gov, for example, does not account for the tax–relief measures that Congress has enacted to help individual Americans and small businesses survive the pandemic, or the activity of the Federal Reserve. The federal government’s site is limited in how much detail it can provide, so while it is a “tremendously valuable resource for researchers,” Goldwein says it is “not comprehensive or usable enough for the average citizen.”
For Americans of all ideological persuasions, the COVID Money Tracker has become an important tool to fact–check public statements about government response to the pandemic and recession. “Congress has provided support for everything from unemployment benefits to money that led to the invention of several effective vaccines,” says Goldwein. “People are missing this. We want to have the facts out there, and we want anybody who is interested in the facts to be able to come to the website and understand them without needing a Ph.D. in economics.”
The usability and breadth of information in the COVID Money Tracker also helps legislative staff in need of accurate and easily accessible statistics. Goldwein hopes the COVID Money Tracker will help policymakers “improve their understanding of what the money has done, and what still is needed.”
Goldwein emphasizes that the COVID Money Tracker does not make judgments about how federal officials have allocated money, or whether it is enough. “We should borrow smartly and the accountability offered through the COVID Money Tracker will help with that. Policymakers will think twice about what they do since Americans are able to see where the money went.”
Goldwein notes that during the Great Recession, the government made only about half of its total allocations through large measures like the ARRA. The rest came later through smaller pieces of legislation. That’s why CRFB will continue to track COVID-related spending for the next several years, until every dollar is allocated and accounted for. Goldwein and his team will also examine the full impact the spending had on the economy and on the national debt.
“This tool will continue to be open to anyone of any political party and persuasion who wants to use it,” Goldwein said. “Our goal is to be a resource, to provide transparency, and to be here to help.”
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