One point of agreement, at least in principle, does seem to have emerged so far between President Trump and the House: support for another round of direct payments — often called “stimulus checks” — to households, on top of the nearly $300 billion already granted under the March 27 Cares Act. Advocates note that the payments — $1,200 for each adult and $500 for each child under 17, which phase out for individuals earning more than $75,000 and married couples making above $150,000 — deserve some of the credit for preventing a surge in poverty, and for propping up consumer spending, on which the wider economy depends. (Mr. Trump likes the optics of sending voters free money in an election year, which is not a good reason for the program but does help explain why he insisted his signature go on millions of checks.)
As much as we often approve of bipartisanship, another round of direct payments is not necessarily the best use of our political leaders’ limited capacity for compromise. The cost, as such, is not the problem, though the Democratic House’s proposed second round would be larger than the first one; deficit considerations are secondary in this crisis. Rather, the issue is efficacy — bang for the buck — both in terms of protecting the most vulnerable and in terms of enabling economic growth. By those standards, it’s not optimal to deliver billions of dollars in aid to tens of millions of people who have not lost their jobs, when the Federal Reserve estimates that the bulk of unemployment is concentrated in households earning under $40,000. As for spending and economic stimulus, many recipients will treat a second payment as a one-shot windfall to be saved, just as they did with the first.
Far better to focus on higher priorities: generous unemployment benefits, adjusted to include appropriate incentives to take jobs as they become available; a refined sequel to the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses; and substantial aid for state and local governments. Consideration should also be given to a bonus of some kind to low-wage essential workers, who have remained on the job throughout the pandemic, in some cases ironically earning less than what laid-off counterparts in similar but nonessential work received from unemployment insurance.
Direct payments, a blunt instrument, played a part in salvaging the economy at a time of unpredictable and catastrophic recession. Now that their previous actions have at least partially paid off, policymakers have the opportunity, and the knowledge, to proceed both aggressively and deliberately.