(CBS Baltimore) — Millions of Americans have relied on stimulus checks to boost their finances during COVID. The pandemic seems to be nearing its end, at least domestically, and life is returning to normal. The economy is improving once again, but the recovery is affecting different people and different parts of the country in different ways. And many people’s finances haven’t improved. Unemployment hasn’t dropped to pre-pandemic levels, and plenty of jobs have not returned. The federal eviction moratorium extends through the end of July. But over half of all states have ended the federal unemployment bonus early or plan to. A fourth stimulus check would give more government assistance to those in need. But will we see it sometime in 2021?
That question still doesn’t have a definitive answer. There are some clues as to the direction things are heading.
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The third round of relief payments started back in March, courtesy of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Since then, somewhere around 169 million people have received up to $1,400 each, accounting for most of the $422 billion set aside. The ARP checks followed closely behind the $600 payments from January, which came nine months after the $1,200 payments from the pandemic’s early days.
Relief payments were intended to soften COVID’s economic impact and support the economy in the process. They seem to have worked to a large degree, leading to differing opinions on whether another stimulus check is necessary.
Economic Recovery For Some
In the first quarter of 2021, the U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 6.4 percent, faster than the 4.3 percent rate from the fourth quarter of 2020. The Conference Board forecasts 9.0 percent growth in the second quarter and continued growth through the rest of the year. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP), an estimate of economic activity across the U.S., has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Broad segments of the workforce have endured little economic hardship during the pandemic. Many jobs accomplished at a desk in an office are just as easily accomplished at a desk in someone’s home. And with fewer places to spend money during the pandemic, plus three stimulus checks, many Americans saved more than they might otherwise. The personal saving rate ballooned to 33.7 percent in April of 2020 and has remained well above pre-pandemic levels ever since. In May of 2021, it sat at 12.4 percent, still above the 8.3 percent from February of 2020, the month before the pandemic. On Face the Nation, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan recently estimated that its customers have not spent 65-70 percent of their last two stimulus checks. With many households sitting on a lot more money than they had in early 2020, pent-up demand is helping to drive the broader economy during the rebound.
The housing market has also surged, thanks to low interest rates and people stuck at home realizing the limitations of their living space. The National Association of Realtors recently reported that the national median sales price for an existing home hit $350,300 in May, up 23.6 percent from May of 2020. That number rose all over the country. Much of that rise was helped along by houses priced above the median. Housing inventory increased over April, but was still down 20.6 percent year over year. And of the homes that sold in May, 89 percent were for sale for less than a month.
The stock market continues to perform well too. The Dow Jones remains far above where it was at this time last year. It opened Wednesday morning at 34,604, not far from its recent record highs. This is despite concerns over inflation and eventual interest rate hikes. Individual investors, flush with extra stimulus cash, have poured into the market. Bigger investors are betting on the strong economic recovery continuing as the year progresses.
While certain experts foresee some of the strongest economic growth in decades, many are also worried about higher inflation. Recent projections indicate that prices will rise about 5.0 percent in 2021, as compared to 2.3 percent in 2019 and 1.7 percent in 2020. The latest data shows prices rising 5.0 percent over the last 12 months, the highest 12-month rate in over a decade. May prices moved up 0.6 percent from April. Much of the rise stems from shortages in the used car market. Lumber prices also have played a part. Some of the rise is also likely due to depressed prices returning as the economy moves on from the pandemic.
According to Yeva Nersisyan, Associate Professor of Economics at Franklin & Marshall College, “we had a whole year where prices didn’t really increase. And for some stuff they actually decreased. So, if you’re comparing this year to that year, then the reading is going to be higher than if the prices had continued to just go up. If there wasn’t a pandemic, the prices would just go up more steadily, and we wouldn’t see that kind of a jump that we saw recently.”
Price hikes and product shortages also stem from the economy opening up all at once. Companies can’t keep pace with a year’s worth of pent-up consumer demand. They also have to revive and retool their supply chains in the midst of drastic changes in consumer demand patterns. COVID has altered how and what people consume. The way these changes play out in a post-COVID world remains to be seen. Companies, however, have to guess now where demand for their product will be when all the dust settles. Predicting the future is hard enough in a normal economy. It becomes much harder in an economy emerging from a pandemic. These price changes and shortages across a whole range of products will likely continue to plague consumers in the short-term. But economists predict they should improve with time. And some evidence, like the falling price of lumber, is already bearing that out.
No Economic Recovery For Others
The pandemic has better illuminated the growing disparities across the broader economy. While many households have financially flourished during COVID, many others have fallen far behind where they were in early 2020. Much of the gap depends on whether wage earners could work remotely or had jobs that required them to be on-site.
Financial insecurity is still widespread, and the loss of a job and the loss of hours have been some of the main reasons. Ten percent of American adults (approximately 20 million people) reported a shortage of food in their household over the previous week, according to U.S. Census survey data from the middle of June. Approximately 16 percent of renters (11.5 million people) have fallen behind on their rent, including 20 percent of renters with children in their household. The federal eviction moratorium, set to expire on July 31, doesn’t forgive rent owed, it pushes the debt into the future. So a tidal wave of evictions may be coming soon. Millions are also struggling to pay their mortgage.
As of mid-June, over a quarter of American adults (66 million people) reported some difficulty keeping up with expenses in the prior week. A survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York determined that over 58 percent of those receiving a third stimulus check have or will use the money on consumption or paying down debt. That includes debt incurred during the pandemic. A Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll from last February listed food and housing costs as the second and third most popular uses of the then-upcoming stimulus.
Employment also remains well below pre-pandemic levels. The unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent in May, but at that time about 7.6 million fewer people were employed as compared to early 2020. Most of them were in low-wage jobs lost during the pandemic that have not returned. Approximately 364,000 people initially applied for unemployment insurance during the last full week of June. (A typical pre-pandemic week saw about 250,000 new unemployment applications.) Another 115,000 people sought Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which supports freelance and self-employed workers. As of the week ending June 12, about 14.7 million workers were receiving some form of unemployment aid. Many jobless Americans have not received unemployment insurance and other government benefits, because of long waits, perceived ineligibility and other issues.
Job growth continues to lag expectations for many possible reasons. Some have argued that overly generous benefits made unemployment more attractive than working. But other considerations factor into one’s ability to work too. Because many schools stayed remote for the entire school year, many parents lacked adequate childcare. With schools now on summer break, that childcare issue may not change. The full vaccination rate is 47.5 percent for the country. But that percentage ranges from 66.1 percent in Vermont to 29.9 percent in Mississippi. So the threat of COVID is still real in parts of the country, leaving many uncomfortable working in public around strangers. A gap between labor force skills and job requirements can make hiring more difficult, not to mention the rising standards of what workers will accept. And then there’s the general friction that inevitably arises when an entire economy slams its foot on the gas.
As before the pandemic, many who are willing to work cannot find jobs with the wages and benefits they need to survive. According to Marie Newman, a U.S. Representative from Illinois, “there is not a shortage of Americans looking for work, there is a shortage of Americans willing to work for starvation wages with no benefits, no health care, and no protections during a pandemic.”
Many states are trying to force the issue and push people back into the job market. These states, most led by Republicans, have announced the discontinuation of the $300 federal unemployment benefit bonus for their citizens ahead of the official Labor Day end date. Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi, and Missouri stopped benefits on June 12. Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, and Nebraska are among the states that stopped benefits on June 19. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas followed on June 26. And Maryland and Tennessee wrapped up benefits on July 3. A total of 26 states have cut off federal unemployment benefits early or will do so soon.
The federal unemployment bonus and the previous round of stimulus checks have helped Americans still awaiting the recovery to pay bills and put food on the table. But they were a short-term fix for a longer-term problem. The money seems to be running out well before many people can once again earn a living wage. And some politicians feel that the payments haven’t been enough.
Support For A Fourth Stimulus Check
A group of Democratic Senators, including Ron Wyden of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, sent a letter to President Joe Biden at the end of March requesting “recurring direct payments and automatic unemployment insurance extensions tied to economic conditions.”
As the Senators reasoned in their letter, “this crisis is far from over, and families deserve certainty that they can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Families should not be at the mercy of constantly-shifting legislative timelines and ad hoc solutions.”
An earlier letter to President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris from 53 Representatives, led by Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, carved out a similar position. “Recurring direct payments until the economy recovers will help ensure that people can meet their basic needs, provide racially equitable solutions, and shorten the length of the recession.”
Additional co-signers included New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, two other notable names among House Progressives. The letter didn’t place a number on the requested stimulus payments. But a tweet soon after put it at $2,000 per month for the length of the pandemic.
$2,000 monthly payments until the pandemic is over. https://t.co/6tuia6prFJ
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 28, 2021
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A May 17 letter from members of the House Ways and Means Committee renewed the push for additional stimulus. “The ARP’s $1,400 checks alone will keep 11 million people out of poverty this year, with UI (unemployment insurance) expansion and other provisions in the bill accounting for the another five million. A fourth and fifth check could keep an additional 12 million out of poverty. Combined with the effects of the ARP, direct payments could reduce the number in poverty in 2021 from 44 million to 16 million.”
There’s also talk about automatic payments that would go out when specific economic metrics reach certain thresholds (for example, if unemployment rises to 6 percent). These triggers would make stimulus checks a reactive force in countering what’s happening in the economy, sparing struggling Americans from Congressional delays.
A majority of Americans also favor recurring relief payments. According to a January poll from Data For Progress, nearly two-thirds of all voters support $2,000 monthly payments to all Americans for the length of the pandemic. Supporters include a majority of Independents and Republicans. A struggling restaurant owner’s online petition calling for $2,000 monthly payments for every American adult has passed 2.5 million signatures.
The Urban Institute estimated that another stimulus payment could reduce poverty by at least 6.4 percent in 2021. Many economists are also onboard. A 2020 open letter from experts in the field argued “direct cash payments are an essential tool that will boost economic security, drive consumer spending, hasten the recovery, and promote certainty at all levels of government and the economy – for as long as necessary.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom is supporting a fourth stimulus check for state residents. His $100 billion budget proposal includes a $600 payment to individuals and households earning between $30,000 and $75,000 per year. The state’s previous stimulus went to those with an annual income under $30,000.
The Biden administration, which authored the third round of stimulus, isn’t against a fourth round of stimulus checks. But the president recognizes their high price tag. He also seems to have other priorities, namely the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. Neither includes another relief payment in its current form.
“He’s happy to hear from a range of ideas on what would be most effective and what’s most important to the economy moving forward,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “But he’s also proposed what he thinks is going to be the most effective for the short term for putting people back to work, to getting through this pivotal period of time, and also to making us more competitive in the long term.”
A Fourth Stimulus Check Is Unlikely
All of this tacit and explicit support keeps alive the possibility of another stimulus check. The support doesn’t make it likely, however. And there are many reasons why.
Vaccinations are progressing steadily. Adults and those at least 12 years old are now eligible to be inoculated in all 50 states. Three different options are available to the public. But actually putting needles in arms still takes time, even with supply readily available. Americans have received over 330 million doses, with 55 percent of the population having received at least one dose and 47.5 percent completely vaccinated. Vaccination numbers continue to increase at a rate above half a million doses per day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised that the fully vaccinated can forgo masks and social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings.
With vaccinations rising and guidance becoming less strict, the nation’s economy continues to recover. Looser restrictions help businesses, and jobs are available in many sectors. Many industries are even complaining of worker shortages. The average for new unemployment claims over four weeks continues to push downward. Consumer confidence is at its highest point since the start of the pandemic, though inflation concerns could dampen optimism about business conditions and the job market.
Consumer spending drives two-thirds of the country’s economy. And excess pandemic savings, along with three stimulus checks, has boosted people’s spending power. That spending power will increase even more when monthly Child Tax Credit payments start on July 15. An improved financial position generally also raises optimism for the future. The ongoing vaccinations, which are allowing the economy to safely reopen, certainly help. All that additional spending, along with the release of pent-up demand, should lead to more jobs as companies hire to address consumer needs. With the economy gaining traction, a fourth round of stimulus checks seems less urgent.
In Nersisyan’s view, “let’s see if people still need more assistance. Let’s see how the economy’s doing as things keep opening up and the vaccination rates go up and things go back to some sense of normal. And let’s see where the unemployment numbers are. Are people still running behind on their rents and mortgages and so on? And based on that, let’s decide whether we need to inject more spending into the economy. I would say wait and see right now.”
Aside from the generally improving economy, the political machinations of Washington make a fourth stimulus check a challenge. The American Rescue Plan, which included the third stimulus check, passed along party lines. Republicans were not interested in spending anywhere close to $1.9 trillion, though some did support the third relief payment. They termed the package a “blue state bailout,” claiming it went well beyond the scope of COVID and would increase the deficit, leading to inflation.
The Democrats used a process called reconciliation to pass the bill in the Senate without Republican support. That allows budget-related matters to proceed with a simple majority rather than the filibuster-proof 60 votes. Generally only one reconciliation bill can pass per fiscal year. But a subsequent ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, who interprets the legislative body’s rules, opened up a path for additional spending legislation. Without reconciliation, any bill would need at least 10 Republican votes, along with every Democratic vote.
But the Biden administration has other priorities. One of its biggest is addressing infrastructure. The President’s American Jobs Plan, which aims to rebuild roads, repair bridges, do away with lead pipes, extend broadband, modernize the country’s electric grid and much more, would cost $2.3 trillion as originally proposed. But Biden and a group of Senators from both parties have agreed upon a framework for a scaled-back infrastructure plan that would cost under $1 trillion. In theory, the new version could include a fourth stimulus check, even though the original version did not. That seems unlikely given the drastic cut in the price tag. Democrats are purportedly also looking to push through another infrastructure-related package, possibly using reconciliation.
The American Families Plan, focusing on childcare, education and paid family leave, would cost another $1.8 trillion. A fourth stimulus check is not included in the current version of this plan either, though one could theoretically still be added. The American Families Plan is a more likely home for a fourth stimulus check than the American Jobs Plan. According to the administration, funding for this plan would come from higher taxes on wealthy individuals. Republicans oppose these possible tax increases.
Plenty more negotiating and paring down seems inevitable before any bill comes to a vote. And securing 10 Republican supporters in the Senate for whatever legislation results is far from certain. Democrats may very well be anticipating the need to use reconciliation again to push through legislation.
Joe Manchin of West Virginia, among the most centrist Democratic Senators, has warned against overusing reconciliation. He is also apparently unwilling to do away with the filibuster, which would lower the number of votes needed to pass legislation to 51. With bipartisanship still hard to come by (the recent deal notwithstanding), the Biden administration is in a tough spot. They’re unlikely to add a fourth stimulus check to any plan, driving up the price tag by hundreds of billions of dollars. They’re also unlikely to use reconciliation to pass another stimulus check on its own.
What Other Aid Is Out There?
While a fourth stimulus check is improbable, more direct payments to Americans have already been signed into law. The American Rescue Plan includes an improved Child Tax Credit and extended unemployment benefits.
Under the revised Child Tax Credit, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will pay out $3,600 per year for each child up to five years old and $3,000 per year for each child ages six through 17. Starting July 15, monthly payments will be issued through December of 2021, with the remainder to be issued when the recipient files their 2021 taxes. The benefit will not depend on the recipient’s current tax burden. In other words, qualifying families will receive the full amount, regardless of how much — or little — they owe in taxes. Payments will start to phase out beyond a $75,000 annual income for individuals and beyond $150,000 for married couples. The more generous credit will apply only for 2021, though Biden has stated his interest in extending it through 2025.
The American Rescue Plan also extended the weekly federal unemployment insurance bonus of $300 through Labor Day. (As mentioned before, more than half of all states have ended the additional unemployment or will be ending it in the coming weeks.) Those eligible for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which covers people who have used up their state benefits, and PUA have also seen their benefits extended through early September. PEUC runs out after 53 weeks. PUA expires after 79 weeks. The ARP also added $21.6 billion to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is being distributed to state and local governments, who then assist households.
The far-reaching American Jobs Plan includes some elements not traditionally associated with infrastructure. Those range from $213 billion earmarked for affordable housing to $100 billion set aside for workforce development among underserved groups. The plan also looks to increase pay for caregivers who tend to the elderly and disabled. Each of these efforts would mean more money for those affected. On a broader scale, the plan also has the potential to create many jobs across a wide swath of the economy. How the proposed initiatives are distributed across the bipartisan plan and the rumored Democratic plan remains to be seen.
The American Families Plan includes 12 weeks of paid family leave that could reach as high as $4,000 per month, depending on a worker’s income. It also boosts the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit and places a ceiling on the cost of childcare for many families. The plan sets aside $200 billion for universal preschool. In addition to helping working parents pay for childcare, the plan hopes to allow more parents to return to the workforce.
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Additional money in people’s pockets from any proposed plan is still hypothetical, of course. Nothing has found its way through Congress yet.
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