“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, adding that Trump wants checks to go out “in the next two weeks.”
This isn’t a new idea. The United States has done this twice before. During the Great Recession, the federal government sent about every adult a $300 to $600 check (plus $300 per child). The same thing happened in 2001, when the majority of Americans received a $300 check.
In the last recession, checks went out to pretty much everyone who wasn’t a millionaire and filed a U.S. tax return, including Social Security recipients. Americans earning at least some income but less than $75,000 got the full amount, while wealthier people got less. The payments were sent by a check in the mail or direct deposit into a bank account.
Most economists across the political spectrum like this idea because it’s simple and relatively fast. Unlike other government aid — unemployment insurance, welfare or food stamps — people do not have to apply for the payments, and there are no restrictions on how to use the money.
As the U.S. economy comes to a standstill, job losses are mounting and could reach the millions, economists say. A $1,000 payment won’t fully compensate people, but experts and politicians say it’s a good first step to help people buy groceries and pay rent. It works out to the equivalent of one week of pay for the typical American, according to the latest Labor Department data, which shows median weekly earnings of $936 for full-time workers.
In past downturns, wealthier Americans tended to save such money, which blunted the economic aid, but lower-income Americans used it immediately to pay bills, a lifeline for their families and a boost to the economy. In the past, about two-thirds of the money was spent within the first six months of the checks going out, according to economic studies of the 2001 and 2008 stimulus efforts.
Many studies have shown that bumping up food stamps, welfare and unemployment insurance during downturns provides an even larger economic boost for the same reason: These Americans are the most cash-strapped, and they tend to spend the money quickly.
There are lots of questions about doling out money so freely. Some ask whether it’s wise to send money at a time when most Americans are supposed to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus. Others argue that rich people shouldn’t get checks because they do not need the cash.
In 2001 and 2008, the checks were technically tax “rebates,” meaning they were part of a larger tax cut. The coronavirus check proposal would just be a direct cash payment that the government would fund by borrowing money.
Mnuchin said Tuesday that millionaires would not be getting the checks. A Democratic proposal from Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) would give at least $1,000 to everyone making less than $65,000. They say that about 75 percent of Americans would qualify.
A Democratic plan from Sens. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sherrod Brown of Ohio would go even further. It provides $2,000 for every American adult and child plus a $1,500 check in the summer and a $1,000 check in the fall, if the public health emergency continues. The highest income earners would not get checks under the Democratic plan. A separate proposal by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) would give families with children about $1,500 more for every month the national emergency continues. The payments would be sent to single parents earning up to $50,000 and married parents earning up to $100,000.
“We will need multiple rounds of money for everyone,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist who is one of the leading experts on recessions. “This recession is going to be more severe than the Great Recession.”
Sahm is now forecasting a deeper recession than what happened in 2007-2009, but she said it might not last as long if policymakers act boldly. She has been talking to lawmakers about a $1.5 trillion stimulus that would include these checks along with aid for states and help for companies on the verge of bankruptcy.
Economists across the political spectrum have been urging Congress to send these checks, including Greg Mankiw, President George W. Bush’s chief economist, and Jason Furman, President Barack Obama’s chief economist. They say the money could be delivered faster today than it was in 2008, partly because direct depositing is so widespread now. Sending to everyone — regardless of income — could also speed up the process because the government would not have to check income records.
“Considering the difficulty of identifying the truly needy and the problems inherent in trying to do so, sending every American a $1,000 check asap would be a good start,” Mankiw wrote on his blog.
Furman put it this way: “Thrilled to see @MittRomney proposing $1,000 checks. This would [be] a critical floor of social insurance for hundreds of millions of Americans and would help the economy rebound more quickly when we are past the virus lockdown phase.”
The money probably can’t go out in two weeks, as the White House proposed. In 2008, it took about two months to get the checks to people, notes Mattie Duppler, a fellow at the right-leaning National Taxpayers Union. But she said it’s reasonable that the money could start going out in April.
The Internal Revenue Service has many people’s direct-deposit information, given that close to 90 percent of people filed their tax returns online last year. Money could be delivered even faster to a lot of the hardest-hit people if it were sent via Social Security payments to the elderly or via the Electronic Benefit Transfer debit cards that government aid recipients already have.
Sahm, the recession expert, has urged Congress and the White House to send out the initial checks quickly and then say they will do more if the unemployment rate jumps above a certain level this summer.
“The world is de facto at war,” French economist Olivier Blanchard wrote on Twitter. Blanchard is the former top economist at the International Monetary Fund. He urged the U.S. government not to hold back on spending.
While some have raised concerns that sending checks to most Americans comes with a hefty price tag that could send this year’s budget deficit to a record $2 trillion or more, Blanchard points out that’s about 10 percent of the nation’s economy. During World War II, the United States ran deficits of over 20 percent of gross domestic product.