Rather late in the game, President Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders have decided they’re on the same team. The goal: send a $2,000 check to most adults, on top of the $600 approved last month. The idea is to help the average American — but there is no average American: Why not use data to target aid where it’s needed?
Just like in the 1940s, when many people had a “good war,” many people are having a good pandemic, financially speaking. The people doing the best? Office workers who haven’t lost jobs or income — but have enjoyed nearly a year of enforced savings. Last year, American families saved $2.2 trillion, or nearly double the $1.2 trillion we normally put away in our piggy banks, according to the St. Louis Fed.
People can’t dine out, travel or go to ballgames. Some of that extra trillion has ended up in home improvement and in new coats. Some has pumped up the stock market; money not spent on a Carnival cruise went into Tesla. But much is sitting in bank accounts.
To be clear: This isn’t the superrich. The superrich — with multiple homes, art purchases and private planes — can largely carry on as before, albeit with some countries cut off from travel.
Rather, these are high five- and low six-figure workers who kept their jobs and their pay. For the employed, average weekly pay has never fallen. In both April and November, it was just over $1,000 a week, or $50,000 a year, similar to last year.
These are the folk who always wanted to pay down that credit-card debt — $120 billon of which has vanished this year.
Yet for a married couple with two kids earning $200,000, House Democrats’ stimulus proposal would mean another $5,500 in the bank, including stimulus credits for children.
That money is going to sit there. With the pandemic raging, there isn’t much to stimulate.
When the pandemic is over? Broad stimulus will just add hundreds of billions to that $1 trillion-plus waiting to be spent, pushing up the prices of finite goods and services, such as hotel rooms and airplane flights. Alternatively, people will have decided that they like having savings — in which case, an extra $2,000 won’t change their mind.
Who could use that money? In April, 19.4 million people had lost their jobs, and by November, eight million were still out of work.
Counterintuitively, it isn’t the lowest-wage unemployed workers who have suffered the biggest shock.
If you made less than $30,000 a year before you lost your restaurant, hotel or entertainment job, federal unemployment benefits have replaced your income, even after $600 in extra weekly benefits expired after July — and, with a new $300 weekly benefit OKed by the president last week, state assistance will continue to cover your income.
The people who have suffered big drops in income? People who earned in the high five figures or low six figures and lost their restaurant, hotel or entertainment jobs to the lockdowns.
Unemployment insurance, even with the extra $300, doesn’t make up for their losses.
Democrats and Trump are absolutely correct to say that the $600 one-time payment to everyone, approved in December, does little to help these truly struggling workers.
But sending everyone $2,000 doesn’t help them enough, either. In March, when the pandemic caught Congress by surprise, there was an excuse to act quickly and to err on the side of sending everyone money.
We have now had nearly a year. Congress should better target cash aid, with the help of IRS data, comparing each legal wage earner’s 2020 pay to his average over the past three years.
Then, reconcile it with state unemployment. People who regularly work and earn under $150,000, and then suffered a big drop in pay and filed for unemployment, would be eligible for a payment that makes up for 90 percent of their income loss. As it happens, it’s tax time, so people could also file this claim themselves.
(Finally: Illegal immigrants and other black-market workers, meanwhile, aren’t eligible for much pandemic help at all, but that is its own fraught topic.)
At half a trillion dollars, sending almost everyone a check represents real money. For Plague Year Two, get the money where it needs to go.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.
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