This editorial originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
Close to one-fifth of the $908 billion proposed in Congress' long-awaited coronavirus relief bill will be sent directly to American taxpayers in the form of "Economic Impact Payments" — checks of up to $600 per person. The $166 billion devoted to these payments is the second-largest line item in the bill, trailing only the $325 billion for loans to help struggling small businesses.
And yet, in the view of some critics, the amount isn't nearly enough. "$600 is not 'a lot' for families," author Don Winslow said in a tweet that typified the pushback, "and ... the people who said it was 'a lot' are detached from the pain of millions of Americans. It will not help them in any real or meaningful way."
The critics are right that the checks will make only a small dent in the fiscal problems faced by some Americans. At the same time, they will pad the savings accounts of millions of Americans who are not struggling.
That's because the payments are the least efficient and most poorly targeted element of the bill. The full amount will be available to individuals earning up to $75,000 per year and to couples earning up to $150,000; at least some dollars will flow to individuals with adjusted gross incomes of up to $99,000 and couples with AGIs up to $198,000. That's about 85% of the population.
Dumping money broadly across the public is not a bad idea when the economy needs a spark. But the economy, which rebounded sharply in the summer only to level off in recent weeks, doesn't need stimulus at this point. The public needs relief — not everyone, just the minority who've experienced the pandemic most acutely.
Other parts of the bill will funnel aid more exclusively to people in crisis, extending and enlarging unemployment benefits, helping renters and increasing food stamp benefits. Beyond that are the provisions that respond to other pandemic-related needs, including aid for small employers, local bus and rail services, child care centers, schools and the Postal Service. There's also more than $50 billion to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines and run testing and tracing programs to try to contain the disease.
All of those programs are important, and in the case of unemployment benefits and rental assistance, the needs will almost certainly continue after the money is exhausted. Meanwhile, many state and local governments, whose efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus have raised their costs and slashed their tax collections, are facing severe budget shortages that could force extensive layoffs. The latest relief bill will help those governments in some specific ways — for example, by covering some pandemic-related health care costs — but it doesn't provide the magnitude or breadth of help that local governments have been desperately seeking.
So Monday's measure is a temporary one. The question is whether Congress will be willing to step up again next year to address the problems that remain — and the ones that will return after the latest injection of aid runs out.
On that point, the signs are not encouraging. Congressional Republicans have voiced more concern about the burgeoning federal budget deficit, something they showed no interest in when they controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. It's worth remembering that in the last recession, Republican opposition to stimulus efforts after the passage of the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 contributed to the sluggish pace of economic growth.
With future funding uncertain, you might argue that Congress should have provided significantly larger checks to help people through the current crisis. But given how poorly targeted the program is, bigger checks would also mean even more money flowing to people who don't need it. The perceived waste will only lend ammunition to the lawmakers who don't want to provide more aid of any kind next year.
A better answer would have been to provide significantly larger checks just to people with problems that fall outside the reach of the government's financial safety net — for example, lower-income Americans struggling to pay an unexpected car repair bill or medical expense. And that's really hard to do, especially when you're trying to get the aid out quickly.
The proposal unveiled Monday is as unsatisfying as any compromise, but the amount of money overall is significant. Considering that Senate Republicans were willing to provide only $500 billion as recently as October (and much of that money was recycled from previous measures), the new bill is a welcome step forward. The next challenge will be to make sure it isn't the last step in the right direction.