We refer to $2,000 direct payments to U.S. households, which Mr. Trump belatedly demanded as a condition of his signature on the $908 billion bipartisan stimulus package in late December, before being forced to back down in the face of resistance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Mr. Trump’s support opened the door for Democrats to back the idea, too, including the two Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who won Georgia’s Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5. And small wonder: People like money, so promising money is politically popular. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) formed a right-left bloc in favor of the $2,000 payments, too, though given Mr. Hawley’s role in recent attempts to overthrow President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, his endorsement is hardly a point in the idea’s favor.
Of course, many people not only like money but also need it — especially now, when so many are hurting because of the pandemic and the economic hardship, lately increasing, it has caused. The problem with the $2,000 plan, at least in its most recent incarnation, was that it would have benefited 99 percent of the population, not just those who need it the most. Economic deprivation has been strikingly unequally distributed during the pandemic, with the middle class and above either holding their own or even doing better — and a finite slice of low-income workers, disproportionately people of color, suffering substantially, in large part from the loss of service industry jobs. Yet the bill the Democratic House passed, after Mr. Trump opened the door, would have sent $2,000, or some portion thereof, to everyone up to families of five earning $350,000. Total cost: $464 billion, on top of $166 billion to send $600 checks that Congress did, in the event, approve. (Most of that money has already been distributed.)
There was nothing progressive about this; to the contrary. Nor was it optimal in terms of stimulating the economy, since there are relatively few ways for people to spend new cash given travel, restaurant and entertainment restrictions. A far more efficient way to help people would have been, and still would be, extending and beefing up unemployment benefits, especially now that the economy has resumed shedding jobs.
Mr. Biden nevertheless favors direct payments, and the incoming Senate majority leader, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), has said he wants to pass a bill promptly. Mr. Schumer might have the votes to do it, considering the idea’s past support from Republican senators such as Mr. Hawley, Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). By contrast, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has urged Mr. Schumer to proceed with caution, citing the need to target aid more precisely. Mr. Manchin, a pivotal voice in the 50-50 Senate, recently called himself a “West Virginia conservative Democrat,” but on this point he is the true progressive.