AS PRESIDENT BIDEN and the Democratic-majority Senate move toward final passage of a covid relief package, a key question has been how far they would be willing to go to make sure that cash payments go only to the neediest people. The answer began to emerge Wednesday, and unfortunately, it appears to be “not very far.” The White House and Senate Democrats have converged on a plan that would trim a House-approved plan somewhat but still enable stimulus payments to reach millions of upper-middle-class individuals and households. In addition to being unjustifiable as a response to the covid crisis, showering public money on those who don’t need it would further commit the governing party to a mistaken concept of progressive policy.

The revised plan would provide $1,400 to individuals earning up to $75,000 per year and at least some money to those making up to $80,000. For couples, the corresponding figures are $150,000 and $160,000. This is indeed an improvement, in terms of careful “targeting,” over the House’s plan, which phased out payments to individuals earning between $75,000 and $100,000, and couples making between $150,000 and $200,000 per year. Yet this still means that government cash will flow to all but roughly the top quarter of the U.S. income scale — despite January’s 10 percent rise in personal income, already boosted by a $600 direct payment in December, and despite data showing that individuals or households making more than $78,000 tend to save direct payments rather than spend them.

Economists at the nonprofit Opportunity Insights estimated that restricting payments to couples earning less than $78,000, and singles earning less than $50,000, would have saved $200 billion of the House measure’s $422 billion cost without harming economic recovery. The reported deal between Mr. Biden and the Senate would probably save a mere $10 billion to $15 billion, according to a preliminary estimate provided to us by economist Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

We understand that Mr. Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are trying to placate not only centrist senators who wanted to tighten eligibility for the payments, but also the party’s left wing, which — in strange agreement with former president Donald Trump — favored $2,000 direct payments, with little or no means-testing. Democrats arguably have their narrow majority because their candidates for two decisive Georgia Senate seats ran on the promise of $2,000 “checks.”

In addition to thinking sincerely that the scope of the covid crisis warrants keeping that promise, progressives often assume that the way to build a constituency for longer-term income-support for the poor is to distribute some to the middle class as well. In our view, economic policy should be based on economic requirements, not political ones. Even in a cheap-interest world, government resources are not limitless and tradeoffs are still real. Funds Congress spends padding the bank accounts of people who aren’t poor, or even close to poor, are funds that won’t be available for other purposes, whether it’s programs to promote equity — or defense, scientific research and infrastructure. Real progressives accept that reality and set policy priorities accordingly.

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