Last spring, Treasury sent “Economic Impact Payments” of $ 1,200 for each qualified adult to approximately 160 million people. In September, Gallup asked people if they would like the government to give them more money.
Lo and behold, 70% of them said yes. Only 17% said no – a group that may have been dominated by those who did not qualify for the first time and were seething with resentment.
When President Donald Trump proposed distributing another round of checks for $ 2,000 per person in December, he again found a receptive audience. Two-thirds of Americans were willing to do their patriotic duty in order to accept more money. In the end, however, Congress approved payments of just $ 600.
President Joe Biden is now looking to make up the difference by writing checks for $ 1,400 to the vast majority of Americans. In the midst of an economic crisis sparked by a raging pandemic, there are many ways the federal government could spend money that would be both inexpensive and humane. Stimulus payments are not included.
Now is no time for austerity. Millions of people have lost their jobs and are unlikely to return to work until a large part of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19. Tens of thousands of businesses have closed due to public health regulations or missing customers. The federal government should stand ready to take on large amounts of new debt to alleviate widespread hardship and prevent the economy from collapsing.
However, this commitment is not an excuse for spending that is ill-suited to either task. While additional stimulus checks will help Americans who are in serious need, they will help many more people who are not. Anyone earning $ 99,000 or less, or a household of two adults with incomes of $ 150,000 or less, was entitled to the full amount of the initial payments.
Approximately 90% of Americans got something that’s double the number of people who say they suffered the economic effects of the pandemic. It is one thing for Uncle Sam to go into debt in order to save people from misery. It is another thing to do to improve the comfort of people who are fully employed and financially secure.
The checks are commonly referred to as stimulus payments, but are not intended to stimulate the economy.
Stimulus is also not what the economy needs. In a normal recession, people will spend less money losing their jobs or fear of losing it, causing the economy to decline. The federal government can help in the short term by giving people money to spend.
This time, however, the economy contracted because the pandemic halted or restricted a variety of activities. Giving people money doesn’t help if they can’t or don’t want to do so many things that involve money – eat out, go to the movies, buy clothes, go on a trip, or throw a party. It’s like wasting matches to light a sodden bang.
The pointlessness of this approach became clear after the first payment round. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that only 40% of the money was spent on goods and services, with the balance supposed to reduce debt or increase savings.
The $ 600 checks cost $ 166 billion, and the $ 1,400 back payment would bring a total of $ 600 billion, according to the Committee on Responsible Federal Budget. That money could be spent in far more productive ways – to keep businesses and nonprofits from going bankrupt; Enable tenants to pay their rent; or fund COVID-19 treatment, testing, and vaccinations.
Restricting payments to individuals with incomes up to $ 50,000 and families with incomes up to $ 75,000 would save $ 200 billion and focus aid on the people who are most likely to need and spend it.
It would be a wrong economy for Washington to forego urgent needs during a crisis. But that does not excuse pumping out cash with a fire hose. Every dollar borrowed adds to the swollen federal debt. We are fortunate that interest rates are now low, making it cheap to borrow. But they won’t stay low forever, and when they go up, taxpayers will groan under the weight.
Most Americans would be happy if the federal government gave them free money, just as they would be happy if someone offered them free beer or free food. You may not notice that they are volunteering to pick up the tab.
(Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Creators Syndicate.)