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Dead Ends in Pandemic Relief Award Data

It’s hard to know where pandemic relief money went. It’s even harder for us to tell you what it was it used for. Government award data is full of dead ends. 

Why did we do this review?

The PRAC is required by the CARES Act to maintain a website that provides detailed data on pandemic relief assistance worth more than $150,000. To meet our mandate, we get most of our pandemic relief data from USAspending.gov, which federal agencies use to report how funds are spent. A required piece of information is a plain language award description that tells taxpayers how their money was used. 

What did we find?

We looked at 51,000 awards worth $347 billion that supported the pandemic response (as of June 15, 2021). We found more than 15,400 awards worth $33 billion with meaningless descriptions that make it difficult to know how the money was used. For example:

  • 12,600 awards use descriptions that just repeat the name of the program, like “Community Development Block Grants/Entitlement Grants”
  • 2,500 awards are described using only technical jargon that the public or policymakers can’t understand, like “CCC5-2021”
  • 360 awards list variations of pandemic-related relief legislation, like “CARES ACT”.

We found some other dead ends in pandemic relief data.  

  • Federal agencies track pandemic response awards to "prime recipients" (like a state), but the prime recipient often distributes most of its money to subrecipients (like a school district) to spend. Prime recipients report their subrecipient award information in a different system that doesn’t distinguish between an award used to respond to the pandemic versus a non-pandemic award. They’re all lumped in the same general category. 
  • Some prime recipients didn’t report data on awards to subrecipients. For example, California distributed more than 1,600 awards to subrecipients from the Education Stabilization Fund. These awards are all listed on the state's website but are missing from USASpending.gov. We can’t tell if that money has even been spent yet, let alone tell the public what it was used for.

Want more details? Read the full report, and see how we’re working to make it easier for the public to know how their tax dollars are spent. 

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