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US gov’t has hundreds of billions in unspent COVID relief funds

Vehicles in parking lots at Los Angeles Dodger Stadium for COVID-19 vaccinations (Community Organized Relief Effort).(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS).
December 15, 2021

The United States still has hundreds of billions of dollars in COVID-19 rescue funding that has yet to be distributed, despite being almost two years and six relief bills into the pandemic, new data revealed last week.

Treasury Department data shows that Congress has approved around $4.5 trillion in COVID aid. Roughly $4 trillion has been formally claimed by a number of federal agencies, but just $3.5 trillion in actual payments have been made, according to CNBC.

The roughly $500 billion in relief that has not been obligated could be returned for other government uses if not distributed according to each program’s deadline.

Budget experts say it can take time for funds to be distributed to the American people due to processing requirements. For example, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Labor must follow procedures to legally commit funds, known as “obligating,” before they can actually spend the money.

According to a CNBC analysis of Treasury data gathered by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the government has underspent its funding for areas like education, health care, and disaster relief.

Marc Goldwein, a senior vice president with the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the government intends to use almost half of the leftover money in the future.

Goldwein suggested a strong credit market may have alleviated the need for some loans, with a lack of demand leading to unused funds.

Other programs cost less than anticipated, including enhanced unemployment benefits, which half of U.S. states cut off prior to the Labor Day deadline.

Education has more money available than any other group: roughly $260 billion was obligated for elementary, secondary and vocation education, but just $60 billion has been spent so far.

Schools have until 2025 to spend the remaining money.

A significant portion of health care services funding is also available. Nearly $303 billion was obligated for the category, but only around $192 billion has been spent.

Goldwein suggested the available funds could be used for COVID-19 testing and care, as well as the anticipated Pfizer antiviral COVID treatment.

The government has spent nearly every obligated dollar in two categories: direct payments to individuals and the Paycheck Protection Program. The US has spent all of the nearly $844 billion approved for direct payments, and has just $3 billion remaining from the over $830 billion paycheck program.

When compared to the financial crisis of 2008, the amount of money the federal government allocated for relief is jarring.

“Just one pandemic relief program — the $800 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — is equal to the federal government’s entire response to the 2008-2009 financial crisis,” wrote PRAC Chair Michael Horowitz in the group’s semiannual report to Congress published last week.