Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2020

Publication Citation

2020 University of Illinois Law Review Online 222 (2020)


The coronavirus pandemic upturned Americans' lives. Within the first few weeks, millions of Americans reported being laid off from their jobs. Other people were working reduced hours or were working remotely from home. Children's daycares and schools closed, and parents were thrown into new roles as educators and full-time babysitters, while, in some instances, also continuing to work full-time jobs. The profound financial effects caused by even a few weeks of the coronavirus' upheaval spurred Congress to pass the CARES Act, which purported to provide economic relief to individuals and businesses.

For individuals, the CARES Act includes five provisions that were effectively designed to provide people money: a direct payment in the form of a tax rebate, enhanced employment benefits, additional paid sick leave, a limited mortgage foreclosure and eviction moratorium, and temporary suspension of some student loan payments. Of these provisions, the direct payment and enhanced employment benefits were the two touted as centerpieces of the CARES Act and the two most likely to aid the majority of American households.

Ultimately, this financial support will prove to be shockingly minimal. The direct payments represent a fraction of the average American households' monthly budget. It also quickly became apparent that the payments were unlikely to reach most people within any sort of useful timeframe, and that once they did, they could be garnished immediately by debt collectors and even banks themselves. The unemployment benefits, while providing people with more money over several months, required that people be laid off and similarly were unlikely to reach people quickly enough to be effective.

These corner pieces of the CARES Act are best understood as gimmicks. Through them, the federal government told people that it would take care of them in ways that were immediately salient to them as the coronavirus crisis began. People's wages decreased at the exact time they were spending more money to stock up on supplies. The CARES Act promised to send people small checks and augment unemployment benefits. Americans very soon began to discover that these promises would do little to help them survive the coming months of financial and social upheaval.

It also became quickly apparent to at least some lawmakers that Congress would need to pass at least one additional stimulus package. And with projections that the pandemic could last for twelve to eighteen months,it seems that Congress may have several more opportunities to craft legislation that actually will help American families survive the pandemic. This legislation must provide people with true funding to stay current with their minimum necessary expenses as these expenses are incurred. In this Essay, we discuss the gimmicks of the CARES Act's individual provisions and what Congress should do for people in future bills to address this pandemic. If done right, helping individuals will cost the government more than $2 trillion next time, and the time after that, and possibly the time after that. And, if done right, it will be worth every penny.