Borrowing money

$5.2 trillion in covid-related spending. Did it do what it was supposed to do?

It was the largest emergency spending explosion in U.S. history: two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion earmarked to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money has spared America’s economy from ruin and put vaccines in millions of weapons, but it has also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.

In a year-long investigation, the Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that money. Here are our main conclusions.

Lots of money, little oversight

Washington cannot fully follow this historical distribution of federal aid. It’s clear that billions have been mis-spent or stolen, but officials don’t know exactly how much. Even when wrongdoing is apparent, experts say the money may never be recovered.

  • “Immense fraud” creates a huge task for Washington as it tries to tighten scrutiny of trillions in emergency coronavirus spending. Read more

Haste made waste

With the economy in freefall, legislators and many agencies have chosen haste over precision, opening the door to waste, fraud and abuse. For example, the Small Business Administration saved hundreds of thousands of businesses from collapse, but it also sent billions of dollars to businesses that probably shouldn’t have gotten the money.

  • The SBA approved loans showing signs of fraud early in the pandemic, according to the House report. Read more
  • Live Nation affiliates have received millions in grants aimed at independent theaters. Read more

Few rules, favorite projects

At one point, Congress sent about $500 billion directly to cities, counties, and states to bolster their budgets. But the money often came with few rules. Republican officials, in particular, have found ways to funnel funds into pet projects unrelated to the pandemic, including cutting taxes and building border walls.

  • Republican states are trying to use federal covid aid to cut taxes. Read more
  • Federal watchdog opens ‘review’ into Texas’ use of covid aid for border crackdowns. Read more
  • How federal pandemic aid helped Texas pay for its border crackdown. Read more
  • Vaccine bonuses, business aid and . . . a golf course? Cities and states have used $350 billion in stimulus windfalls for a wide variety of purposes. Read more

A boon for criminals

The huge sums of money that saved some families from financial ruin also attracted sophisticated criminal networks. For example, criminals stole the identities of thousands of innocent Americans and obtained unemployment checks in their names, making funds difficult to access when people legitimately needed help.

  • ‘A magnet for scammers’: Fraud embezzled billions from pandemic unemployment benefits. Read more

Washington wades

Understaffed, unprepared and overstretched federal agencies often fumbled to disburse the huge sums of money efficiently. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, where watchdogs have warned of years of mismanagement, a nearly $400 million job-training program has so far created less than 400 jobs.

  • Millions in covid aid went to retrain veterans. Only 397 got a job. Read more

The rich have their own

Some aid programs have exacerbated economic disparities. Those with the deepest pockets, the savest lawyers and the best connections often proved adept at accessing the money, while some of the hardest-hit schools, hospitals, businesses and families were wronged.

  • How federal covid aid spread through Xavier’s class. Read more
  • The unintended consequences of the $178 billion bailout to keep hospitals and doctors afloat. Read more

Read the Covid money trail

About this survey

Reporting by Tony Romm, Yeganeh Torbati, Lisa Rein, Anu Narayanswamy.

Editing by Lori Montgomery, Damian Paletta and Mike Madden.

Editing and project management by KC Schaper.

Design and development by Talia Trackim. Design edited by Virginia Singarayar. Illustrated by Luisa Jung.

Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Graphics Kate Rabinowitz and Chiqui Esteban. Visual business editing by Karly Domb Sadof.

Additional reporting by Gerrit De Vynck, Razzan Nakhlawi, Lauren Lumpkin, David Lynch, Chris Rowland, Rachel Siegal, Jeff Stein and Perry Stein. Additional editing by Janel Davis, Meghan Hoyer, Jennifer Liberto and Sandhya Somashekhar.

Additional editing, production and support by Mark Smith, Scott Vance, Kathleen Floyd, Jordan Melendrez, Cece Pascual, Brian French, Mike Cirelli, Phil Lueck, Karen Funfgeld, Matthew Callahan and Bishop Sand.