Legislators should use COVID funds for stimulus payments to struggling Missourians

When customers don’t have cash to spend, businesses struggle. Missouri lawmakers can help.

White and pink buds on dogwood and tulip trees brighten the Missouri State Capitol grounds in Jefferson City (Getty Images).

I know that many businesses across our state are working hard to keep their doors open. While their business plans may differ, from retail to service, restaurants to grocers, our businesses have one key characteristic in common – they rely on attracting customers who have money to spend.

But in this economy, many Missourians are facing extreme hardship and wondering what bill to pay with the last few dollars they have left.

When Missouri legislators reconvene after Thanksgiving, they have the opportunity to use a fraction of federal pandemic relief funds to provide a stimulus to the most struggling Missourians. Doing so would not just provide a lifeline to more than 80,000 Missourians – it would create an economic stimulus that would help small Missouri businesses survive and benefit local economies.

Too many in our communities are struggling greatly with the economic consequences of the pandemic. Whether they’re struggling to provide food for their families, falling behind on rent or mortgage payments, or, like more than one in four Missourians, having difficulty paying their normal household expenses, they are the customers who are the lifeblood of businesses across our state.

But the more than 80,000 Missourians who have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits aren’t spending like they did a few months ago. They’ve been without work for months, and are struggling to meet their most basic living expenses. Which means they aren’t grabbing a cup of coffee, maintaining their cars, or spending any extra dime they don’t absolutely have to.

While the state’s unemployment rate has decreased, that doesn’t mean that those without work face good prospects. There are fewer jobs available than there were before the pandemic started, and given the trajectory of COVID-19 in Missouri, it’s likely that unemployment rates will soon be on the rise again.

And that’s bad news for businesses across the state. When customers don’t have cash to spend, businesses struggle. Missouri lawmakers can help. State legislators recently began a special legislative session to allocate the remaining federal COVID relief dollars sent to Missouri. These funds must be spent by December 31st, or they are sent back to Washington.

Gov. Mike Parson and state legislators have identified many valuable ways for these funds to be spent throughout Missouri. With the expiration date looming, in an effort to make sure that all the dollars owed to Missouri can be used to help Missourians, the current proposal is to use any funds not spent by local government to replenish the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund – the very fund used to pay unemployment benefits to Missourians who are laid off.

It’s critical that this fund remain solvent, especially during a time of economic crisis, like the one we are currently facing. But in an exceedingly rare “have your cake and eat it too” moment, Missouri can maintain the solvency of the UI trust fund while ALSO helping struggling Missourians AND local economies.

A recent proposal suggested using a portion of the remaining federal COVID funding to provide a $1,000 stimulus payment to those Missourians who have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits. As of the end of September, that would cost less than $83 million – just a fraction of the remaining COVID funds.

These Missourians are some of those most in need of economic aid, and are the families who are the most likely to spend that money quickly, and in their local community, to pay for essentials. This spending would create a stimulus effect that has been shown to create a return on investment – in fact, estimates show that every dollar of payment targeted to unemployed Missourians would create a $1.49 return in the local economy. This means that the $82.5 million in stimulus payments would create an additional $123 million in economic activity.

As a Missourian, I appreciate that Gov. Parson and lawmakers want to ensure the vitality of the unemployment trust fund. But for our businesses to remain solvent, we need as many Missourians as possible to have money to spend in their communities.

By providing a stimulus payment to those Missourians who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, Missouri lawmakers can assist families who are most in need and help stimulate local economies across the state.