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Karl W. Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was formerly vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation and assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina.
With a deadline looming, stimulus talks between congressional Democrats and Republicans remain deadlocked over four issues: a liability shield for business, aid for state and local governments, stimulus checks for all Americans and a boost in unemployment compensation for workers who have lost their jobs. From a purely economic perspective, the right solution is easy: all of the above.
From a political standpoint, however, that’s unrealistic. Including all four provisions would push the overall price tag to more than $1 trillion, a red line for a crucial bloc of Republican senators. Ideally, those senators would realize that the risks of doing too little right now far outweigh the risks of doing too much. The U.S. job market is already feeling the impact from the latest wave of the pandemic, and there is no sign that it’s near its end.
Given how staunchly Republicans resisted spending half of that amount — even when it had the potential to save Donald Trump’s presidency — odds are that they are simply unwilling to go higher. In that case, if something has to go, it should be the stimulus checks.
These checks were a hugely successful part of the CARES Act passed in March, and I strongly supported them. They were a way of buying insurance for a crisis that was still unfolding. They also bought a lot of goodwill with the American public and made a real difference for tens of millions of Americans.
Nine months later, however, it’s clear that most U.S. households are in solid shape. What should concern Congress are those Americans who, through no fault of their own, are unable to work amid the pandemic.
Leaving these workers without crucial support will only fuel a backlash against the lockdown measures that are necessary to minimize the effect of what is — hopefully — the last wave of the pandemic. Economically and morally, Congress’ most important task is building a bridge for these workers between now and when a vaccine is widely available.
When Congress first passed enhanced benefits in March, there was — understandably — concern that many workers would earn more on unemployment than they could on the job. That, in turn, would have made it difficult for employers to rehire them if COVID-19 faded over the summer.
Those fears turned out to be overblown for two reasons. First, while warm weather did help reduce COVID-19 in the Northeast, increased use of air conditioning helped it spread throughout the Sun Belt. Second, the vast majority of furloughed workers were more concerned with keeping their jobs over the long term than with keeping the temporary windfall of enhanced unemployment benefits.
The data suggest that the vast majority of those unemployed workers used those benefits to keep their current expenditures steady and add to their savings. That prudence has helped stabilize the economy — but that cushion of savings will soon run out.
When it does, those unemployed workers will be forced to cut back on spending. That reduction in spending will then make it harder for businesses trying to get back on their feet. This is the exact opposite of what the economy needs if it’s going to bounce back once a vaccine is widely available.
Sending out checks is popular and, from a pure risk-management standpoint, more than worth the expense. If, however, Congress has to cut back on something to get a deal, then it should be the stimulus checks — not the expanded unemployment benefits.