School Lunches During COVID-19

What happens to children who rely on meals at school when the coronavirus pandemic results in unexpected school closures?

Federal nutrition assistance programs are usually used to provide food to children in low-income areas when schools are closed for vacation. However, they can also operate during natural disasters or other emergencies when schools have to close unexpectedly.

One such program is the Summer Food Service Program. We’ve looked into how this program can serve children when school is not session—and the challenges it faces in doing so.

Today’s Watchblog explores.

The Summer Food Service Program

USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, which serves both urban and rural areas, generally provides free meals to children age 18 and under in low-income areas when schools are closed. Pictured below are some examples of meals served under the Summer Food Service Program.

Normally, these meals must be served to children in a group setting, and children must eat these meals on site (at locations like schools, parks, and libraries). However, USDA can grant states the flexibility to provide meals to children outside of a group setting when safety is a concern, such as during the coronavirus epidemic.

In fact, USDA announced that all states, the District of Columbia, and territories have received approvals enabling them to serve meals to children in non-group settings during school closures related to COVID-19 through the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option.

Program challenges

As we reported in 2018, the Summer Food Service Program served 149 million meals to children in low-income areas nationwide in FY 2016—up from 113 million in FY 2007.

USDA uses the number of meals served (along with other data) to estimate the number of children participating in this program. However, we found that the program’s participation estimates were calculated inconsistently from state to state and year to year—hurting USDA’s ability to use this information for planning purposes.

Some states also reported a challenge with ensuring meal sites are in safe locations. To address this issue, USDA granted some states flexibility from the requirement that children consume meals on site. However, USDA had not clearly communicated the kinds of circumstances that would warrant this flexibility. Some states who requested this flexibility also reported difficulty obtaining the data to show these circumstances exist.

A way forward

As the nation responds to the pandemic, it will be important for USDA to calculate reliable participation estimates to help assess whether meals are reaching those in need. We made 4 recommendations to help address these and other issues—including that USDA improve estimates of participation in the Summer Food Service Program. We also recommended that USDA better communicate the circumstances it considers when granting flexibilities to ensure safe meal delivery.

Other federal programs that can help or have helped provide meals or nutrition assistance benefits while schools are out include:

·         The Seamless Summer Option of the National School Lunch Program

·         The Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children

·         Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

·         Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)

·         The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

To learn more, check out our report and listen to our podcast.


·  Questions on the content of this post? Contact Kathryn A. Larin at

·         Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact

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What is the Defense Production Act, and how is it being used in response to COVID-19?

On March 27, the administration announced it would use the Defense Production Act in response to COVID-19 (coronavirus). The President directed the Department of Health and Human Services to work with General Motors to prioritize the production of ventilators that could be used to help a growing volume of patients experiencing respiratory issues.

The action comes amid reported shortages in medical resources, such as masks and ventilators.

Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at the Defense Production Act. How does it work and when has it been used in the past?

What is the Defense Production Act?

In 1950, during the Korean War, Congress enacted the Defense Production Act to ensure the availability of industrial resources to meet wartime needs. Over time, the act has been amended to include the energy supply, emergency preparedness, and critical infrastructure protection and restoration activities. These additions were made with the goal of allowing civilian agencies to rapidly respond to crises such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Today, only 3 parts of the act remain in effect. They allow the President to:

  • require preferential performance on government contracts with private companies,
  • provide financial incentives to increase production capabilities for critical security needs, and
  • collect information related to domestic industrial base issues.

When has the Defense Production Act been used?

The Department of Defense routinely uses the Defense Production Act to place priority ratings on contracts, ensuring preferential delivery of industrial resources and capabilities for defense needs. For example, Defense used the act to support the creation of the Integrated Ballistic Missile Defense System, the B-2 Bomber, and for updates to Air Force One, according to the Congressional Research Service.

However, less common is using the act during domestic emergency situations. 

In 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used the act to respond to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico—providing contracts for manufactured housing, food and water, and restoration of electricity to the island.

Check out our report from 2008 to learn more about the Defense Production Act, including the oversight of its use.

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Are Schools Prepared to Respond to a Pandemic?

Schools and colleges across the nation are closing their doors, sending students home, and moving to online or other forms of instruction in response to growing concerns about the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. 

In our prior reports, we have reviewed how K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, prepare to protect students and staff from threats like pandemics—and how the federal government can help.

Today’s WatchBlog explores.

K-12 schools

State and local laws and requirements continue to guide districts and schools when planning for and managing emergencies. The federal government’s role in school emergency management has been to support state and local activities, by providing guidance, training, equipment, and funding to help districts and schools respond to emergencies effectively. Therefore, K-12 schools and their districts create emergency management plans, but may choose to use federal resources to inform their efforts.

When we last surveyed school districts about emergency planning in 2015, we found that most K-12 school districts had emergency operation plans to respond to multiple threats and hazards. About 70% of school districts had plans specifically for responding to infectious diseases. However, only half of school districts specified how they would maintain continuous operations or recover after an incident.

In our work, we have made recommendations to federal agencies on how they could best support K-12 local efforts. For example, in 2015, we recommended that the Department of Education meet with federal agency partners to develop a strategic approach for helping schools prepare for emergency situations.

In response to this recommendation, several federal agencies joined forces in August 2016 to develop the Federal Partnership in School Emergency Management and Preparedness (FPSEMP) — whose mission is to promote coordination and collaboration of federal agencies in order to assist K-12 schools and school districts in their school emergency management and preparedness efforts. In March 2017, the Steering Committee approved the goals and objectives developed by the Task Force to support the charter.

More recently, several federal agencies collaborated to launch a new federal website,, to help schools prevent, protect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from emergency situations. The website contains a section on emergency planning, and, noting the GAO’s 2016 findings, recommends that every district or school develop and implement a comprehensive school emergency operations plan that describe the actions that students, teachers, and school staff should take before, during, and after emergency events.

Colleges and universities

We interviewed 18 colleges in 2018 about their efforts to prepare for emergencies. All of these institutions reported developing emergency plans to address a range of emergencies. Colleges and universities often have sprawling campuses and on- and off-campus housing—so managing an emergency includes developing multiple communications strategies. To publicize emergency plans, officials reported using websites, text messages, presentations, and drills.

The federal government also provides resources to help these institutions prepare for and respond to emergencies. However, college officials and the organizations that support them, described mixed awareness of federal resources, especially those specifically tailored to colleges.

We recommended that DHS, DOJ, and Education work together to more effectively publicize emergency preparedness resources to colleges. The President’s 2018 Commission on School Safety recommended similar efforts. In early 2020, federal agencies launched, which consolidates resources from multiple federal agencies, making it easier for both K12 schools and colleges to learn about and access available resources.

To learn more about COVID-19 and what the U.S. government is doing to respond to it, visit and For a Spanish translation, visit

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at
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Census Operations During COVID-19

April 1st is Census Day—an important marker for reporting where you live as of April 1, 2020, for the 2020 Decennial Census.

The census, which includes a population count, has real consequences for how seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned, and how congressional districts are divided. The census also provides vital data for the nation. The data that the census collects provides information to guide decisions affecting funding for hospitals, schools, and roads. Further, businesses use census data to market new services and products and to tailor existing ones to demographic changes.

While the 2020 Decennial Census kicked off in January, concerns about COVID-19 have stalled operations.

In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss the effects of COVID-19 on census operations, as well as additional challenges the 2020 Census faces. 

COVID-19 and the 2020 Census

The Census Bureau (Bureau) is required by law to finish the 2020 Census and deliver the count of the population to the President by December 31, 2020. At the same time, the Bureau must address the risks presented by the global spread of COVID-19.

On March 18, the Bureau announced it would suspend field operations and hiring, onboarding, and training of census workers until April 1 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 28, the Bureau further suspended these operations until April 15.

The Bureau also announced steps it was taking to adjust or extend certain operations because of the risks of COVID-19. For example:

  • The Bureau is extending the time period that households can “self-respond” online, by phone, or by mail.
  • The Bureau is delaying its Mobile Questionnaire Assistance program, which will assist people with responding online at places such as grocery stores and community centers. The Bureau had planned to start these efforts in late March, but has delayed until mid-April.
  • The Bureau has also delayed its visits to non-responding households to collect census data. In past years, census employees have gone door-to-door to interview folks who have not completed their questionnaires. According to the Bureau, this effort will now start in late May.
  • Because many colleges and universities are temporarily closed, the Bureau has said it would work with schools to ensure that college students are counted at their school. Students who live off campus were reminded to count those locations as their residences even if they are temporarily living elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bureau said these delays and other changes would result in extending the deadline for collecting responses from July 31 to August 14. According to the Bureau, this revised date should still allow the Bureau to deliver the population count to the President on time.  

Additional Census challenges

We added the 2020 Decennial Census (which is expected to cost $15.6 billion) to our High Risk List in February 2017, and it remains on our High Risk List today. GAO’s High Risk List includes programs and operations that are deemed ‘high risk’ due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation. The list is issued every 2 years at the start of each new session of Congress and has led to more than $350 billion in financial benefits to the federal government in the past 13 years.

Over the past decade, we have made 112 recommendations specific to the 2020 Decennial Census. Some of the major issues we’ve found include:

  • Counting everyone. For 2020, the Bureau is planning to increase its efforts to include groups that it considers “hard-to-count”—such as minorities, renters, and young children. It added more language choices for its materials and hired more people for outreach in local communities. However, we found that the Bureau faced challenges with integrating its outreach and promotion activities across its many different operations.

The below figure shows some of the challenges the Bureau has when trying to locate, contact, persuade, and interview hard-to-count groups.

  • Verifying addresses. Early Census operations to verify addresses were generally on schedule—field staff successfully completed address canvassing for more than 50 million addresses. However, the census faces a staff shortage and is working to recruit enough workers for later operations. For example, it is hiring up to 500,000 people to follow up with households that do not initially respond to the census.

The Bureau also allows tribal, state, and local governments to review and offer updates to its master address list. But the Bureau received 5.1 million updates from these organizations—more than it expected—and reviewed only a fraction of them in the office. Consequently, Census workers will have to visit and verify these addresses in person, which could mean millions of dollars in additional fieldwork.

For more on GAO’s Census work, listen to our Watchdog Report Deep Dig episode, where we talked to some of GAO’s experts on 2020 Census challenges.

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How prepared are airports and airlines to handle a pandemic?

Physical distancing and avoiding shared surfaces can be quite difficult when it comes to air travel. Airports and airplanes have many of the features that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend you avoid to prevent the spread of diseases, such as COVID-19 (coronavirus).

We know that staying home and washing your hands thoroughly and frequently are ways to slow the spread of viruses, particularly during a pandemic. But, not everyone can avoid air travel, which has the potential to spread infectious diseases farther and faster than other kinds of transportation.

In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss how the U.S. aviation system plans and prepares to contain the spread of communicable diseases. We also discuss the status of our 2015 recommendation to improve the U.S. aviation system’s capacity to respond to a new outbreak.

Photo of a U.S. airport.

How prepared are airlines and airports?

COVID-19 is not the first viral threat to impact our daily lives and disrupt the aviation industry. In 2003, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) spread to 29 countries over a 6-month period. More recently, the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic spread across West Africa claiming the lives of more than 11,000 people (according to the CDC). Both instances also offer examples of the potential economic cost that air travel disruptions can have on the U.S. and global economies.

Listen to our podcast from 2015 to learn more about the Ebola outbreak and how airlines prepared at that time.

Lessons learned from the past

Because of concerns about Ebola and future viral threats, in December 2015, we looked at 14 U.S. international airports and 3 major U.S. airlines to see how prepared they were for communicable disease threats from abroad and what challenges they faced when responding to these threats.

We found that while all of the international airports and major airlines that we studied had plans for responding to communicable disease threats from abroad—in the absence of a federal requirement—it was unclear how many U.S. airports and airlines had such plans. Further, we found that individual airport plans were intended to handle one or two flights with arriving passengers, rather than a full epidemic, which may require the involvement of multiple airports on a national level.

We also found that airports and airlines faced challenges in responding to communicable diseases. In the case of the Ebola response, representatives from one airport said that many airports had good efforts under way, but that the efforts were fragmented across airports leaving passengers and airlines to deal with differences in how travel is handled at each airport. Also, airline and airport representatives pointed to difficulties sharing timely and accurate information about threats. Furthermore, employees at aviation services firms that we spoke with—including contract workers who clean aircraft—raised concerns about the availability of training and access to personal protective equipment, among other things.

A national aviation-preparedness plan needed

Having a national aviation-preparedness plan would provide airports and airlines with an adaptable and scalable framework to align their individual plans. It would also help ensure that individual airport and airline plans work in accordance with one another.

In December 2015, we recommended that the Department of Transportation work with relevant stakeholders—such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks. While Transportation agreed that a plan is needed, as of March 2020, no such plan has been developed. Transportation continues to suggest that HHS and the Department of Homeland Security have responsibility for communicable disease response and preparedness planning, respectively, and that these departments should lead any efforts to address planning for communicable disease outbreaks.

Without a national plan in place, Transportation must engage with interagency partners like Homeland Security and HHS—as well as other industry stakeholders—on an ad-hoc basis to collaborate on response and preparedness.

For example, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Transportation has reported that it has facilitated conference calls between stakeholders—including federal agencies and aviation stakeholders—and has collaborated with the CDC (which is within HHS) to update interim guidance for airline crews about communicable diseases, specifically COVID-19.

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As economy turns, unemployment insurance may once again play an important role

During the last recession, from 2007-2009, about half of the 15 million U.S. workers who lost their jobs received unemployment insurance benefits. As another potential recession looms because of COVID-19 (the coronavirus), unemployment insurance programs may once again play an important role in helping individuals and families make ends meet.

In today’s WatchBlog, we look at unemployment insurance benefits, new guidance from the Department of Labor, and how workers can apply for the program.

What is unemployment insurance?

Unemployment insurance provides temporary cash benefits to eligible workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Benefits are funded primarily through state payroll taxes on employers. But, because state government revenues generally decline during economic downturns, the federal government has responded during past recessions by increasing funding to states for unemployment insurance.

New guidance from the Department of Labor encourages states to be flexible

The Department of Labor recently issued guidance stating that federal law allows states the flexibility to amend their own laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits in multiple scenarios related to COVID-19. For example, the new guidance says states are allowed to pay benefits where:

  • an employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19 preventing employees from coming to work
  • an employee is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is lifted
  • an employee quits due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.

Why is it important to check with your state about eligibility?

Because unemployment insurance programs are state run, individuals should check with their own state for questions about eligibility.

After “the great recession” (2007-2009), we reported that workers who lost their jobs and were in the bottom 30% of earnings were half as likely to receive unemployment insurance benefits as those in the top 70%. We identified several possibilities for why lower-wage workers were less likely to receive benefits, including that they potentially did not meet minimum earnings requirements or had to quit a job due to a family hardship. We also noted that policies differed in some states. For example, some states had policies allowing individuals to be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits if they left a job to care for a family member while others did not.

For information on eligibility rules or how to apply for benefits in your state, please use to the following link and select your state from the dropdown menu.

To learn more about COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and what the U.S. government is doing to combat the pandemic, visit and For a Spanish translation, visit

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The Coronavirus Response: Lessons Learned from The Past

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is quickly challenging Americans to rethink every aspect of our daily lives. And while this particular virus is new, GAO has issued reports and congressional testimonies covering several similar public health challenges and emergency federal aid packages.

For example, we’ve done work on the science behind the coronavirus, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the federal government in managing and responding to a public health crisis— and mitigating some of the effects that, while major, may not be directly health related. These reports and congressional testimonies include lessons learned and open recommendations that federal agencies can implement now.

Today’s Watchblog explores.

Federal preparedness

Researching coronaviruses. Our Science & Tech Spotlight: Coronaviruses discusses the 7 strains of coronavirus that are known to cause illness in humans—including the most recent coronavirus disease, COVID-19. It’s a brief primer on how coronaviruses work, diagnostics (as of February), and research on vaccines and treatments.

Federal agencies conduct and sponsor research on infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Greater public access to the results of this research could help to speed the dissemination of knowledge about such diseases, and accelerate development of vaccines and treatments. However, we’ve previously noted that nontraditional researchers, entrepreneurs, and industry may not typically have the same kind of access to federally funded research results (both publications and data) as academic researchers.

In 2013, certain federal agencies were directed to create plans for increasing access to publications and data they funded. We made 37 recommendations to 16 agencies to address these and other issues.

The National Biodefense Strategy. This was issued in 2018 (along with implementation guidance) and spells out the nation’s plan to prepare for threats like COVID-19. We recently testified about how well the strategy has worked so far. For example, we found there are no clear processes, roles, or responsibilities for joint decision-making. In February, we made 4 recommendations, including that the Department of Health and Human Services (the lead agency for the strategy) clearly document how it’s going to ensure interagency coordination. 

In our mid-March podcast on pandemic preparedness, one of our experts stated, “Coordination is easy to say and hard to do.” Check out that podcast for more on federal coordination related to pandemic response.


Medical preparedness. HHS is also the lead agency for coordinating federal efforts for a public health emergency response, such as COVID-19. The catastrophic destruction caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria that overwhelmed the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rican governments in 2017 resulted in a large federal disaster response. This response included HHS providing medical personnel and facilities and evacuating critical care and dialysis patients. We identified shortcomings in HHS’s efforts, such as insufficient staffing at emergency operations centers that contributed to confusion over the status of evacuated patients. We made 7 recommendations, including that HHS ensure adequate staffing.

Many people are concerned that the nation’s health care system may not be able to care for a sudden influx of patients. Other public health workers may also need extra help. HHS can temporarily reassign its personnel to state and local health departments to help with emergency response. We recommended communicating about this authority with the HHS agencies whose personnel are likely to be reassigned.

State and local preparedness. Over a 15-year period, Congress provided about $3 billion to respond to specific infectious disease threats, such as Zika, Ebola, and H1N1 pandemic influenza. HHS awarded an additional $18 billion for more general public health preparedness and capacity-building activities, such as getting ready for infectious disease threats and terrorist events. We assessed the preparedness efforts of states and others and found mixed results. For example, most responder protection and coordination efforts met goals, but efforts were less consistent in three other areas: electronic lab reporting, epidemiology capacity, and laboratory capacity. Preparedness at the nonfederal level is particularly important because many of the resources needed to combat biological threats, such as an outbreak of a novel virus, are at the nonfederal level.

Air travel. Staying home and washing your hands thoroughly and frequently are ways to slow the spread of viruses. But if you have to travel, bear in mind that air travel has the potential to spread infectious diseases farther and faster than other modes of transportation. A comprehensive federal plan for the U.S. aviation system’s preparedness is needed to help prevent and contain the spread of disease.

Airlines and airports have individual plans to handle flights with infected passengers, but an epidemic may require involvement from multiple airports on a national level. We recommended that the Department of Transportation work with stakeholders like the Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan. 

Federal response

Federal agencies can become involved in responding to a disaster when effective response and recovery are beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments. In such cases, the president may declare a major disaster, which allows the federal government to provide funding and coordinate other recovery activities. 

FEMA response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency leads the overall federal response during emergencies and disasters. However, we have testified on the challenges in federal preparedness capabilities and FEMA’s workforce. Specifically, we testified that FEMA had not completed a comprehensive and measurable national preparedness assessment of capability gaps—for example, the amount of resources required to save lives, protect property and the environment, and meet basic human needs after an incident has occurred. We also previously reported on long-standing FEMA workforce management challenges, such as ensuring an adequately-staffed and trained workforce.

HHS response. While FEMA leads disaster relief efforts, HHS is responsible for leading the coordination of a medical and public health response. However, we have reported on shortcomings in HHS’s public health and medical services response following the 2017 hurricanes in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Specifically, HHS did not have a full understanding of the capabilities and limitations of its support agencies, such as the Department of Defense. Consequently, teams specialized in trauma and surgical care were sent to the territories as part of the response, but not the chronic and primary care specialties that they needed. We recommended, among other things, that HHS develop agreements with support agencies that include response capability and limitation information.

Economic response. The federal government historically has intervened in financial markets during times of economic crisis—from the Great Depression to the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis to the most recent financial crisis. Following the 2008 financial crisis, we expanded on a set of guiding principles for when the federal government is considering intervening in private markets to avert a systemic crisis. Specifically, the government could follow the principles we’ve previously identified (i.e., identifying and defining the problem, determining a national interest and setting clear goals, and protecting the government’s and taxpayers’ interests), as well as adhering to 5 additional principles based on the federal government’s experience with the current crisis.

Cascading social effects and federal aid

All of the lifestyle changes that people are adopting to help slow the spread of COVID-19 aren’t happening in a vacuum. They will have a cascading effect throughout the rest of society—on people’s livelihoods, living conditions, and more. Federal aid can help people cope.

Disrupted business. The Small Business Administration announced March 12 that it would use disaster assistance loans to help small businesses affected by COVID-19. We recently looked at how SBA responded to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. After each of these hurricanes, SBA accepted between 100,000 and 125,000 loan applications. We may expect to see a higher volume of applications for assistance under the coronavirus because it’s a nationwide issue. We will have to wait to see how the new process involving state and territorial governors will work. Check out our WatchBlog post from last week to learn more. 

Unemployment. How many millions of U.S. workers are employed in the gig economy, where they hold nontraditional, part-time, and temporary jobs to make ends meet? Long story short: it’s hard to tell. The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the number of workers, but the numbers do not reflect the full scale of unemployment because of the difficulty in measuring the gig or nontraditional workforce. As we see people staying home and employers temporarily shuttering their businesses, there could be repercussions for unknown numbers of gig employees and other workers. 

During the last recession from 2007-2009, about half of the 15 million U.S. workers who lost their jobs received unemployment insurance benefits. As another recession looms because of COVID-19, unemployment insurance programs may once again play an important role in helping individuals and families make ends meet. During the last recession, we reported that low-wage workers were less likely to receive unemployment insurance than higher wage workers. We identified several possibilities for why this might be—including that they potentially did not meet minimum earnings requirements or had to quit a job due to a family hardship. We also noted that policies differed in some states.

School meals. Schools across the nation are closing or closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. But many children rely on school meals as a daily food source. We’ve examined the Summer Food Service Program, which provides children in low-income areas with nutritious meals when school is not in session. Normally, these meals must be served to children in a group setting and children must consume the meals on site (at locations such as schools, parks, and libraries). However, states can seek flexibility from USDA with the requirement that children consume meals onsite in a group setting. As unanticipated school closures in response to the coronavirus occur, states may seek such flexibilities to help ensure healthy meals continue to be provided to children safely.

Help for older Americans. Adults over age 60 are especially at risk should they contract the virus. So, what services are available to help older adults during a pandemic? In our report on services for rural older adults, we found that rural aging agencies and service providers have long been confronting some of the same issues now facing older adults everywhere with the onset of COVID-19. For instance, older adults in rural areas may face challenges related to access to services, social isolation, long distances and dispersed populations, limited transportation options, and a lack of service providers.

Emergency funding: Learning from climate disasters. Climate disasters, like hurricanes, can necessitate emergency funding. Lessons learned from the oversight of those funds can be applied to current coronavirus aid packages. We reported that we need a strategy for disaster relief oversight to ensure agencies have plans in place to spend their disaster relief funds efficiently. We reviewed plans submitted by 6 agencies along with the Office of Management and Budget guidance, and found OMB didn’t have a strategy for ensuring that agencies provide sufficient, useful plans in a timely manner. We recommended that OMB develop such a strategy.

Want to know more? GAO also has a broad portfolio of work on the federal government’s response to and preparedness for infectious diseases, viruses, and biological threats—including Zika, Ebola, Avian Influenza, and H1N1.

Questions on the content of this post?

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Disaster loans could help small businesses affected by coronavirus

The Small Business Administration announced Thursday that it would use disaster assistance loans to help small businesses affected by COVID-19 (coronavirus), as directed by President Trump’s national address.

SBA disaster loans are usually used to help respond to localized disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes. For example, disaster loans were used to support businesses affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. But the coronavirus outbreak has affected the entire country.

Today’s WatchBlog explores how small businesses can use these loans, and how the use of these loans during the coronavirus outbreak will differ from previous recovery efforts.

How will these loans work?

SBA is offering up to $2 million in assistance for a small business that has been affected by coronavirus. These are direct loans from the federal government that can be used to pay for things like fixed debts and payrolls. The disaster loans made available for small businesses adversely affected by the coronavirus are economic injury disaster loans.  (Physical disaster loans are for the permanent rebuilding and replacement of uninsured or underinsured disaster-damaged properties.)

For small businesses that cannot obtain credit elsewhere, the SBA-stated interest rate is 3.75%. Loan terms can be up to 30 years.

In order to provide assistance, SBA must first receive a request for help from the governor of a state or territory. This is a new process that has not been part of the current program.  Once this request is approved, SBA will be able to makes loans available in designated areas of the state or territory.

How will they differ from previous disaster loans?

There are different types of disaster loans. The majority of disaster loans that SBA made to businesses after the 2017 hurricanes were physical disaster loans, which can to be used to rebuild and replace disaster-damaged property and are available to most businesses regardless of size.

The loans being offered now are for economic injury and are available only to small businesses.

We recently looked at how SBA responded to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. After each of these hurricanes, SBA accepted between 100,000 and 125,000 loan applications. SBA approved about 49% of these applications and lent over $7 billion in loans. SBA also processed over 90% of loan applications within its 45-day goal.

We may expect to see a higher volume of applications for assistance under the coronavirus because it’s a nationwide issue, and we will have to wait to see how the new process involving state and territorial governors will work. 

For more information on how to get a disaster assistance loan, contact the SBA disaster assistance customer service center at 1-800-659-2955 (TTY: 1-800-877-8339) or email

To learn more about our work on SBA’s disaster loan programs, check out our latest report. In addition, there is a Spanish translation of our latest report’s highlights page.

To learn more about COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and what the U.S. government is doing, visit and For a Spanish translation, visit

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact William Shear at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact

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The F-35: ALIS in the Looking-Glass

The F-35 is the most modern fighter jet in the world. It’s the Department of Defense’s most ambitious and costly weapon system. It’s also supposed to be one of the smartest.

It runs on the Autonomic Logistics Information System, a hardware and software system known as ALIS (read: “Alice”). This smart system is supposed to manage everything the F-35 fleet needs to operate at peak condition.

But ALIS doesn’t actually work the way it’s supposed to. In today’s WatchBlog, we’re taking a look at ALIS—and what the Department of Defense plans to do with it in the future.

What is ALIS supposed to do?

ALIS is supposed to monitor system health and take action to improve it—by scheduling maintenance, for example, or ordering parts.

It’s also supposed to help military leadership keep tabs on the fleet—letting them know which planes are flight-ready. Software in ALIS is intended to help plan missions and record information for debriefing.

There’s even an application in ALIS intended to track training for pilots and maintainers—keeping them apprised of any developments in the F-35’s technology or capabilities.  

What’s going wrong?

Even after years of development and testing, the system doesn’t work as intended—which officials recognize is particularly problematic because of how interconnected the system is with the F-35.

Because critical data in ALIS is often inaccurate or missing, F-35 maintainers have to manually collect and track information that should be automatically captured in the system. Tracking information in this way is both time-intensive and risky: when key data used to assess an aircraft’s safety has to be tracked using Excel spreadsheets, there is a chance that something critical could get overlooked. 

Also, ALIS is bulky and hard to deploy. The server units (pictured here) that collect and analyze ALIS’s aircraft data each weigh approximately 200 pounds and require at least two people to lift. Personnel have to take several of these server units with them on a deployment. The units need a whole room to operate, so it can be hard to find a place to store them on a ship, for example.

F-35 personnel who use ALIS told us that while it’s working better than it used to, the user experience is poor. The interface isn’t intuitive, it’s hard to navigate, and standard functions can take much longer to complete than expected. And that training application? None of the 5 locations we visited are currently using it. They told us that the application doesn’t usually work—they use more user-friendly legacy systems instead.

What are the next steps?

The Department of Defense knows the system needs to be re-designed, and has decided to replace ALIS with a future system that it has named the F-35 Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN). However, the Department has yet to answer some critical questions about the effort.  How much of ALIS will be incorporated in ODIN? Does the Department have access to the data it needs to play a more active role in management of the new system? The figure below shows these technical and programmatic uncertainties.

As DOD proceeds with developing its new system, it will be imperative for the department to carefully consider and assess these questions.

Furthermore, since the Department has not developed a performance measurement process for ALIS, or determined how ALIS issues affect F-35 fleet readiness, how will the Department incorporate these efforts into its current and future systems?

Our recommendations are to help the Department develop a strategy for ALIS’s upcoming re-design. Check them out in our report.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Diana Maurer at
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The Federal Government Is on an Unsustainable Fiscal Path

Growing debt is not just a number—it represents a threat to our economy and our ability to meet national needs and priorities.

The federal deficit (the amount of money spent vs. the amount collected) increased for the fourth consecutive year. This year—and for the foreseeable future—the annual deficit is expected to top $1 trillion. At the same time, the federal government is highly leveraged by debt, which further strains the nation’s fiscal condition. 

In today’s WatchBlog, we take a look at our fourth annual update on the nation’s fiscal health. How did we get here? What steps do we need to take to address historic debt levels?

By the Numbers: A Trillion Dollar World

  • Debt held by the public increased to $16.8 trillion in FY 2019 (or 79% of GDP)—up from $15.8 trillion (or 77% of GDP) at the end of FY 2018. This means that the value of debt was equal to 79% of the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. in FY 2019. Long-term projections show continuing increases with debt held by the public growing faster than the economy.  This situation—in which debt grows faster than GDP—means the current federal path is unsustainable.  To change course, the nation will have to balance short-term priorities with a forward-looking plan for fiscal sustainability
  • To put these numbers in perspective, debt held by the public as a share of GDP peaked at 106% just after World War II (in 1946) and has averaged 46% since. However, if current trends continue, the debt as a share of GDP in 2050 will be nearly twice that level and about 4 times the post-World War II average.
  • Social Security spending already exceeds $1 trillion per year;  Medicare spending is expected to exceed $1 trillion per year by 2026. By 2032, net interest will exceed $1 trillion per year.
  • Over the past 50 years, net interest costs have averaged 2% of GDP, but they  are projected to increase to 7.2% of GDP by 2049.

Rising federal debt could constrain Congress’ ability to support the economy or address other national priorities, reduce private investment & overall economic growth, erode confidence in the U.S. dollar. The below chart shows when spending on net interest exceeds that on other areas of spending if no action is taken to change the path.  

Figure Showing Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), FY2019-FY2059

Early Action Is Important

GAO, the Congressional Budget Office, and the 2019 Financial Report (authored by the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Treasury) agree that the longer Congress and the president delay action to address our fiscal health, the greater the changes will need to be, placing additional burden on future generations and taxpayers. Our annual report identifies suggestions Congress could consider as part of a plan to put the government back on the path toward sustainable fiscal health.

Our America’s Money Matters video takes a look at the nation’s financial condition and future, and opportunities to improve it.

Another way to learn more, read our report or listen to our podcast with GAO’s Susan Irving, an expert on debt and fiscal issues.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Susan Irving at
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