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To Understand Congress' Coronavirus Deal, Stop Worrying about the Checks

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To Understand Congress' Coronavirus Deal, Stop Worrying about the Checks

December 23, 2020

The nation has been waiting eagerly for a second round of legislation to deliver economic relief to those hit hardest by the fallout from the Covid crisis. And late yesterday, news broke that an agreement had been struck and passage was imminent. Then another curveball. Trump says he won't sign the bill unless there is a larger stimulus payment: $2000 instead of $600. He was not alone in his frustration. Rather than a collective sigh of relief, the news was largely met (at least among those engaged enough to have a point of view within hours of the announcement) with disappointment and annoyance. At the crux of the dismay was the same complaint that the President voiced, a sense that the “stimulus” payments of $600, reserved for middle- and lower-income Americans, simply isn’t enough. Fortunately, those payments are just part of the package. In fact, they make up just 20 percent of the spending, with the rest largely going to programs that, at least in theory, deliver aid more directly to those who lost work, or might still lose work, due to the crisis. As with the CARES Act, much of the firepower of this new legislation comes through the expansion of unemployment insurance benefits and in the form of support intended to encourage employers to keep workers on the payroll. 

This new package provides for states to deliver an extra $300 per week in benefits to workers collecting unemployment insurance and extends the coverage period for workers, which was set to expire at the end of the calendar year, after it was initially extended by the CARES Act in March. This will prevent millions of Americans from falling off the personal financial cliff, something that would have occurred if the CARES Act extension of unemployment insurance benefits had been allowed to expire. 

The other significant effort to support workers comes through an expansion of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which delivers potentially huge loans to employers who maintain their workforce through the crisis. Employers who borrow through the program to finance continued operations, despite depressed demand and forced or precautionary closures, and continue to employ a specified share of their workforce, stand to have the huge loans forgiven. This incentivizes employers to avoid shedding jobs and leaving people without paychecks or turning them over to the unemployment insurance rolls.

There are a few criticisms of these approaches, some valid and some not. First, many are arguing that this set of interventions neglects the average Joe in favor of bailing out big business. This is factually incorrect, at least in spirit. The combination of expanded UI benefits and the PPP program’s effect on employment is designed explicitly to support workers. In fact, delivering more benefits through the “stimulus” check portion of the effort and minimizing these programs would mean less support for those who are most affected by the crisis (i.e., those who lost their jobs or work.) That’s because a larger stimulus check, with the same overall price tag, would mean spending more on supporting those who were fortunate enough not to lose their work during the crisis. It may be that these interventions fall short of delivering the aid efficiently to where it is needed, but it’s not for a lack of trying.

That brings me to the more valid concerns about the new law’s approach. As is always the case with policy, the devil is in the details. And while programs featured in the law have the best intentions of targeting support to the neediest Americans and preventing the type of economic scarring that would affect the economy for years to come, problems with implementation could stand in the way of achieving those goals. As was seen with the implementation of the CARES Act, unemployment insurance programs are administered at the state level, and individual states have different abilities to quickly respond to changes in federal policy. This will likely result in a delayed delivery of these much-needed aid dollars. Similarly, there have been challenges with the PPP that have stood in the way of it preserving the number of jobs it was theoretically capable of preserving. Using private banks to administer PPP meant that some businesses, namely large ones, were favored and ultimately received a disproportionate amount of the dollars spent. The complexity of the program also seemed to discourage many small businesses that were wary of taking on debt that they weren’t certain they wouldn’t have to repay.

The glitches with implementing expanded UI benefits and the PPP offer argue for devoting federal spending to “stimulus” checks instead, which function quite seamlessly to put money in the hands of Americans who genuinely need it. The only downside to this approach is that the economy is not quite ready for a stimulus. Vaccines are beginning to roll out, which is better news for the economy than any government-led intervention could possibly be. We should be focused on fiscal interventions (like expanded UI benefits and the PPP) that allow activity to come to the necessary halt while preventing the dissolution of businesses and irreversible personal decisions (like liquidating homes or retirement accounts) that would lead to a scarring of individual livelihoods and the economy at large.

If you believe that economic stimulus works to stoke the economy, there will be plenty of time for that sort of intervention once the pandemic has been brought under control by the vaccines. In the meantime, the more nuanced, yet less flashy, approaches to helping those directly hit by the crisis that are contained in the new law are a reasonable way forward.   

Beth Akers is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former Council of Economic Advisors economist. Follow her on Twitter here.

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