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    The Pandemic Stimulus Was Front-Loaded. That Could Mean a Bumpy Year.

    When government support fades away, there’s a risk that the affluent will sit on their cash rather than spend it.Waiting in line to file for unemployment benefits in Fort Smith, Ark., last April. Nick Oxford/ReutersThe U.S. economy is about to face a new challenge that has its roots in the arithmetic of growth: That which fiscal stimulus giveth, fiscal stimulus taketh away.The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted in March, as well as a $900 billion pandemic aid package passed in December, are heavily front-loaded. They were set up to get money out the door fast. But one consequence of that strategy is that fiscal policy in the quarters ahead will subtract from economic growth.Economists mostly project that the economy, with strong momentum in the labor market and huge pools of pent-up savings by households, will be strong enough to keep growing despite the fading of the fiscal boost. To avoid an economic downturn, a huge handoff must occur from government-driven demand to the private sector.The mainstream view is that this will be successful. But there are aspects of this unusual economic moment that could make the road ahead bumpy.There is no modern precedent for such huge swings in sums the government is pumping into the economy. And there is a risk — recently acknowledged by a top Federal Reserve official — that if pandemic-era savings are disproportionately held by the affluent, they will sit on that cash rather than spend it.“We’re definitely going to see a huge drop-off in fiscal stimulus,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics. “The question then is how well positioned is the economy to deal with that, and we don’t really know for sure, which applies to so much about this period we’re going through.”Most Americans who were to receive stimulus checks of a combined $2,000 per person have already gotten them. The Treasury Department said this month that $395 billion of that cash is now shipped, which is slightly more than the payments in the American Rescue Plan were projected to cost when it was passed.While unemployment insurance payments remain elevated, that spending is also tapering as people return to work — and supplements to those payments are scheduled to expire in September. Much of the other spending was either near-term, focused on things like vaccine rollout, or will be spent very gradually, such as on an expanded child tax credit and grants to state and local governments.Overall, government spending added 8.5 percentage points to the economic growth rate in the first quarter, according to calculations by the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution. But that so-called fiscal impact is forecast to turn slightly negative in the second and third quarters — and then act as a meaningful drag on growth in the fourth quarter of 2021 and in 2022.By the second quarter of 2022, fiscal policy is on track to subtract 3.3 percentage points from the growth rate, considerably more than the 2.2-percentage-point subtraction in the third quarter of 2011, which was the most extreme quarter in the last post-stimulus hangover of the previous recession.That could change depending on where negotiations on infrastructure and family support policies lead, but those policies would be expected to influence fiscal policy over many years — they are backloaded rather than front-loaded — so they shouldn’t radically change the near-term future.The case for staying calm even as federal spending plummets rests on the rapid growth of the private sector in recent months.Employers are adding to their payrolls at a breakneck pace, so rising compensation ought to prop up consumer spending even as government support goes away. Businesses report being in an expansionary mood, which bodes well for investment spending. And overseas economies should start to surge ahead as other countries achieve more widespread vaccination, which would be good news for American exports.“I think the basic story is that the economy is reopening, so it can take the fact that this stimulus is coming off,” said Louise Sheiner, a senior fellow at Brookings.Moreover, Americans are sitting on a vast pool of savings from money they didn’t spend on things like travel and restaurants during the pandemic. Households have saved an average of $282 billion per month since March 2020, compared with $103 billion a month in 2019.So a big question for the economy in the second half of 2021 and 2022 is what happens to that cumulative additional savings of $2.5 trillion. Will it prop up near-term spending enough to keep growth on a strong track, or will Americans instead prefer the comfort of having a beefed-up balance sheet?That’s where the distributional concern arises. To the degree that money is held by people who are financially well-off, they may be less likely to spend it and help propel the economy.“Today’s fiscal tailwinds are projected to shift to headwinds next year,” said Lael Brainard, a Fed governor, in a speech this month. “So an important question is how much household spending will continue to support growth into next year, as opposed to settling back to prepandemic trends.”On the other hand, the rapidly shrinking fiscal surge could help moderate the inflation pressures that have been building in the economy. Whatever you think of the decision to send $2,000 to people, there won’t be any more checks that might push demand still higher and risk fueling a cycle of inflation.Ultimately, this is another example of the ways the pandemic-driven economy is an unusual one. The only real historical comparisons to the kinds of surges in government spending of the last five quarters involve the beginnings and ends of wars, which have their own economic dynamics.Which means it’s worth watching exactly what happens as the federal government pulls back, and whether American consumers and businesses and importers from around the world step up the way forecasters expect. More

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    Biden Administration Moves to Unkink Supply Chain Bottlenecks

    A swath of recommendations calls for more investments, new supply chains and less reliance on other countries for crucial goods.WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Tuesday planned to issue a swath of actions and recommendations meant to address supply chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and decrease reliance on other countries for crucial goods by increasing domestic production capacity. More

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    Stimulus Checks Substantially Reduced Hardship, Study Shows

    Researchers found that sharp declines in food shortages, financial instability and anxiety coincided with the two most recent rounds of payments.WASHINGTON — Julesa Webb resumed an old habit: serving her children three meals a day. Corrine Young paid the water bill and stopped bathing at her neighbor’s apartment. Chenetta Ray cried, thanked Jesus and rushed to spend the money on a medical test to treat her cancer.In offering most Americans two more rounds of stimulus checks in the past six months, totaling $2,000 a person, the federal government effectively conducted a huge experiment in safety net policy. Supporters said a quick, broad outpouring of cash would ease the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Skeptics called the policy wasteful and expensive.The aid followed an earlier round of stimulus checks, sent a year ago, and the results are being scrutinized for lessons on how to help the needy in less extraordinary times.A new analysis of Census Bureau surveys argues that the two latest rounds of aid significantly improved Americans’ ability to buy food and pay household bills and reduced anxiety and depression, with the largest benefits going to the poorest households and those with children. The analysis offers the fullest look at hardship reduction under the stimulus aid.Among households with children, reports of food shortages fell 42 percent from January through April. A broader gauge of financial instability fell 43 percent. Among all households, frequent anxiety and depression fell by more than 20 percent.While the economic rebound and other forms of aid no doubt also helped, the largest declines in measures of hardship coincided with the $600 checks that reached most people in January and the $1,400 checks mostly distributed in April.“We see an immediate decline among multiple lines of hardship concentrated among the most disadvantaged families,” said H. Luke Shaefer, a professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored the study with a colleague, Patrick Cooney.Given the scale of the stimulus aid — a total of $585 billion — a reduction in hardship may seem like a given, and there is no clear way to measure whether the benefits were worth the costs.The study does not address the critics’ main complaints, that the spending swelled the deficit, that much of the money went to economically stable families who did not really need it and that the checks were part of a pattern of aid over the last year that left some people with less incentive to find jobs. Some analysts say hardship would have fallen anyway as a result of job growth and other safety net programs.Still, the aggressive use of stimulus checks coincides with growing interest in broad cash payments as a tool in social policy, and the evidence that they can have an immediate effect on the economic strains afflicting many households could influence that debate.Starting in July, the government will mail up to $300 a month per child to all but the most affluent families in a yearlong expansion of the child tax credit that Democrats want to make permanent.Ms. Ray had to contribute $600 to the cost of a CT scan for her cancer diagnosis. The stimulus check in April allowed her to afford it.Callaghan O’Hare for The New York TimesWhile the ability of cash payments to reduce hardship might seem obvious, Mr. Shaefer pointed out that critics of such aid often warn that the needy might waste it. He argued that the size, speed and variety of the hardship reductions vindicated the use of broad cash relief. While other forms of pandemic aid have been better targeted, some have taken many months to distribute and can be used only for dedicated purposes like food or housing.“Cash aid offers families great flexibility to address their most pressing problems, and getting it out quickly is something the government knows how to do,” Mr. Shaefer said. Extrapolating from the survey data, he concluded that 5.2 million children had escaped food insufficiency since the start of the year, a figure he called dramatic.The experience of Ms. Ray, a warehouse worker at a recycling company in Houston, captures the hardships that the pandemic imposed and the varied ways that struggling families have used stimulus checks to address them. Earning $13 an hour, Ms. Ray had an unforgiving budget even before business closures reduced trash collection and cut her hours by a third.Her car insurance lapsed. Her lights were shut off. She skipped meals, even with food pantry aid, and re-wore dirty work clothes to save on laundromat costs. When her daughter discovered that they owed thousands in rent, she offered to quit high school and work, which Ms. Ray forbid. A stimulus payment in January — $1,200 for the two of them — let her pay small parts of multiple bills and restock the freezer.“It bridged a gap,” Ms. Ray said, while she waited for slower forms of assistance, like rental aid.Then she got cancer. To confirm the diagnosis and guide her treatment, she had to contribute $600 to the cost of a CT scan, which she did with the help of a payment in April totaling $2,800.In addition to providing for the test, Ms. Ray said, the checks brought hope. “I really got down and depressed,” she said. “Part of the benefit of the stimulus to me was God saying, ‘I got you.’ Spiritual and emotional reassurance. It took a lot of stress off me.”Scott Winship, who studies poverty at the American Enterprise Institute, questioned the reliability of the census data used in the University of Michigan study, noting that fewer than one in 10 of the households the government contacts answer the biweekly surveys.He also argued that hardship would have fallen anyway, since the last round of stimulus checks coincided with tax season, which sends large sums to low-wage workers through tax credits. Between the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit, a single parent with two children can receive up to nearly $8,500 a year.Researchers at Columbia University estimate that poverty fell sharply in March, but Zachary Parolin, a member of the Columbia team, said that about half the decline would have occurred without the pandemic relief, primarily because of the tax credits.Noting that the stimulus checks allocated as much to households with incomes above $100,000 as they did to those below $30,000, Mr. Winship called them inefficient and a poor model for future policy. “It’s not sustainable to just give people enough cash to eliminate poverty,” he said. “And in the long run it can have negative consequences by reducing the incentives to work and marry.”Analysts have long debated the merits of cash versus targeted assistance like food stamps or housing subsidies. Cash is easy to send and flexible to use. But targeted benefits offer more assurance that the aid is used as intended, and they attract political support from related businesses like grocers and landlords.Throughout the pandemic, policymakers have employed both approaches. The first round of stimulus checks, $1200 per adult and $500 per child last year, started before the Census Bureau surveys began, so it is harder to gauge its effect.With full eligibility extending to families with incomes of up to $150,000, the stimulus checks could reach nearly 300 million Americans. While that greatly increased the cost, Mr. Shaefer said it reduced the resentment that could accompany aid to the chronically needy and noted that hardships have expanded up the income ladder.Even among households that had prepandemic incomes of $50,000 to $75,000, more than 11 percent of those with children sometimes or often lacked food at the start of the year — a figure that has since fallen in half, according to the Census data.Ms. Ray said she had skipped meals and reworn dirty work clothes to save on laundry costs during the economic downturn.Callaghan O’Hare for The New York TimesWhen some people heard the latest checks were coming, they considered the news too good to be true. Ms. Webb, a St. Louis nursing aide with three young children, lost about two-thirds of her earnings when the pandemic left fewer patients seeking in-home care. She found another job but lost it after catching Covid. Food was the first casualty.“We’d have breakfast a little later than normal, and then dinner — no lunch,” she said. “Sometimes the kids would have dry cereal because we didn’t have milk.”Despite her skepticism, Ms. Webb received $8,000 for her four-person family between the two rounds. She used the money to pay back family loans and reduce her overdue rent, and she started serving lunch and an afternoon snack “to make sure the kids were full-full.”“I was like, ‘Woo!’ This is the most money I ever seen in my bank account,” she said. “I’m still in a hole, but I’m starting to see more sunlight now.”Mr. Shaefer acknowledged that other aid and an improving economy might have helped reduce hardship, but he said the timing pointed toward the stimulus checks. Among families with children, nearly 90 percent of the improvement in food sufficiency this year occurred in the two weeks after each round of payments.The study cited another direct link between cash aid and hardship: after the government stopped supplementing jobless benefits last fall, food insufficiency among families with children rose nearly 25 percent.“Throughout the crisis, the level of hardship faced by U.S. households can be directly linked to the federal government’s response,” Mr. Shaefer and Mr. Cooney wrote.Low-income families often emphasize the stress that economic uncertainty brings, especially when it threatens needs as basic as shelter and food. At the start of this year, 73 percent of households with children reported spending at least several days a week feeling anxious. That figure has since fallen to 57 percent, according to the census data.“I really got down and depressed,” Ms. Ray said. “Part of the benefit of the stimulus to me was God saying, ‘I got you.’ Spiritual and emotional reassurance. It took a lot of stress off me.”Callaghan O’Hare for The New York TimesBut mental health might have improved for many reasons, Mr. Winship said, including increasing vaccinations, falling disease rates and the socialization that has accompanied the reopening of businesses and schools. “I would really question whether that’s the stimulus checks,” he said.Still, research in recent decades has emphasized the debilitating effect that stress can have on children raised in low-income households. And recipients of the stimulus payments often describe them as an emotional balm.For Ms. Young, 40, the problems of poverty and poor mental health are deeply entwined. A Chicago woman with schizophrenia, she is raising a teenager and a baby on food stamps and disability checks. Extra help from adult children lapsed during the pandemic when they lost work. The result was a disconnected water line and two weeks of toting jugs from her neighbor’s apartment.“It’s really depressing, having to worry about losing your lights and water,” Ms. Young said. “Very stressful. It was a very, very dark path.”She did not receive the stimulus payment that most people got at the start of the year, for reasons she does not understand. She checked her bank account in April, to see if she could buy a loaf a bread, when she found it swollen with a $1,400 stimulus check.Ms. Young bought the bread — two loaves — and paid down her utility bills to avoid more outages. “I did it that day,” she said. “You just don’t know — it was such a relief.” More

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    Republicans Push Biden to Divert Federal Aid for Infrastructure

    Unexpected receipts, driven in part by taxes on high earners riding a hot stock market, have prompted Republicans to push the president to spend on infrastructure instead.WASHINGTON — From California to Virginia, many states that faced devastating shortfalls in the depths of the pandemic recession now find themselves flush with tax revenues because of a rebounding economy and a soaring stock market. Lawmakers who worried about budget cuts are now proposing lucrative increases in school spending, tax cuts and direct payments to their residents. More

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    Small Businesses Have Surged in Black Communities. Was It the Stimulus?

    New research finds a big rise in new businesses despite the pandemic, particularly in predominantly Black neighborhoods.Over the last year, multiple stimulus measures from the federal government have helped families buy groceries, pay rent and build a financial cushion. This aid might have also helped start a new era of entrepreneurship.There has been a surge in start-ups in America that experts have yet to fully explain. But a new study — using data that allows researchers to more precisely track new businesses across time and place — finds that the surge coincides with federal stimulus, and is strongest in Black communities. More

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    How It Looks to Live in N.Y.C. During a Pandemic on $100 a Week

    Ms. Galán’s home is small, but happy. Christopher, 11, Mia, 7, and Ian, 1, get along. The older children help keep the space tidy. The youngest has kept them giggling during the long year they’ve spent together indoors. Before the pandemic, Ms. Galán worked at a dry cleaner in the Bronx, earning about $350 per […] More

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    Amid Economic Turmoil, Biden Stays Focused on Longer Term

    The president’s advisers are pushing their most detailed argument yet for the long-term benefits of a $4 trillion agenda to remake the American economy.WASHINGTON — President Biden and his economic team on Thursday made their most detailed case yet for trillions of dollars in new federal spending to rebuild public investment in workers, research and physical infrastructure, focusing on long-term ingredients of economic growth and equality as the current recovery from recession showed signs of distress.The president’s aides published what amounted to a deeper economic backbone for the argument that Mr. Biden is making publicly and privately to sell his plans to lawmakers, including the message he conveyed to a group of Republican senators he invited to the White House on Thursday to discuss an infrastructure package centered on roads, bridges, transit and broadband.That meeting ended with encouraging words from both sides. Republicans said Mr. Biden invited the senators, who had previously offered a nearly $570 billion, narrowly focused package, to return with an updated offer, including how to pay for new spending.Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who is leading the Republicans’ negotiations, said lawmakers would prepare an updated offer for the president to review by early next week, including a more detailed list of the kinds of projects they would be willing to fund and a set of proposals to cover the costs. The senators said they expected Mr. Biden would then respond with a counteroffer.“I made it clear that this was not a stagnant offer from us,” Ms. Capito said. “He made it clear that he is serious in wanting to pursue this.”She said Republican senators were open to raising the overall top-line price tag of their offer, which is a fraction of the new spending the president proposed. She also suggested that Republicans would be willing to cut a deal with Mr. Biden even if he decided to pursue a more progressive package, including priorities beyond traditional infrastructure, with only Democratic votes. Other senators predicted the sides would know by Memorial Day whether they could reach a deal.“It’s in nobody’s interest to draw this out beyond the time when you think it’s workable,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. “But I certainly left there thinking there’s a workable agreement to be had if we want to stretch a little both ways.”Shortly before the meeting, the White House Council of Economic Advisers posted a document to its website that cast Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda as a way to correct decades of tax-cutting policies that had failed to bolster the middle class. In its place, the administration is pushing a rebuilding of public investment, like infrastructure, research and education, as the best way to fuel economic growth and improve families’ lives.The so-called issue brief reflects the administration’s longer-term thinking on economic policy when conservatives have ramped up criticism of the president over slowing job growth and accelerating inflation.Administration officials express confidence that recent price surges in used cars, airfare and other sectors of the economy will prove temporary, and that job growth will speed up again as more working-aged Americans are vaccinated against Covid-19 and regain access to child care during work hours. They say Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic aid package, which he signed in March, will lift job growth in the coming months, noting that new claims for unemployment fell to a pandemic-era low on Thursday.The officials also said it was appropriate for the president to look past the current crisis and push efforts to strengthen the economy long term.The two halves of Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion agenda, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, are premised on the economy returning to a low unemployment rate where essentially every American who wants to work is able to find a job, Cecilia Rouse, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview.“The American Rescue Plan was rescue,” Dr. Rouse said. “It was meant as stimulus as we work through this hopefully once-in-a-century, if not longer, pandemic. The American Jobs Plan, American Families Plan are saying, look, that’s behind us, but we knew going into the pandemic that there were structural problems in our country and in our economy.”Mr. Biden’s plans would raise taxes on high earners and corporations to fund new federal spending on physical infrastructure, care for children and older Americans, expanded access to education, an accelerated transition to low-carbon energy and more.Those efforts “reflect the empirical evidence that a strong economy depends on a solid foundation of public investment, and that investments in workers, families and communities can pay off for decades to come,” Mr. Biden’s advisers wrote. “These plans are not emergency legislation; they address longstanding challenges.”The five-page brief focuses on arguments about what drives productivity, wage growth, innovation and equity in the economy. The issues predate the coronavirus recession and recovery, and Democrats in particular have pledged for years to address them.The brief begins by attacking the “old orthodoxy” of tax-cutting policies by presidents and Congress, including the 2017 tax cut passed by Republicans under President Donald J. Trump. A driving rationale behind that law was an effort to encourage more investment by private companies, bolstering what economists call the nation’s capital stock. The brief faults those policies for not producing the rapid gains in economic growth that champions of those policies promised, and it says that raising taxes on high earners “will help ensure that the gains from economic growth are more broadly shared.”Republicans continue to insist that tax cuts, particularly for businesses, are the key to economic competitiveness and middle-class prosperity. They have refused to negotiate any changes to their party’s signature 2017 tax law as part of an infrastructure agreement, even as they concede some need for a limited version of the new public investments Mr. Biden is calling for.Republicans used the meeting on Thursday to reiterate that they would be unwilling to raise corporate or personal taxes lowered by their 2017 law. Instead, they pitched the president on the use of zero-interest loans and public-private partnerships, in addition to existing gasoline taxes and other government savings.Mr. Biden would raise taxes to reverse what his economic team calls the federal government’s underinvestment in policies that help educate children and adults, facilitate the development of new technologies and industries and support parents so they are able to work and earn more. His team cites the wave of quickly developed coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which grew out of publicly funded research, as an example of public investments yielding private-sector innovation.“Those started with ideas that were funded by the public sector decades ago,” Dr. Rouse said. “And then the private sector built on top of that, so it’s really, the private sector needs to work with the public sector. We are all very grateful that the public sector was willing to take that risk, and it didn’t pay off right away.”“In many ways, the federal government should be patient,” she said. “We are a kind of entity, we should be patient. So I’m not saying we have to wait a million years for something to pay off, but we don’t need to have the kind of immediate payoff that a private company might need to see.”That argument is in many ways a departure from how administrations typically pitch economic policies during a crisis. There is no focus in the brief on immediate job creation or a quick bump in economic growth.Weeks after Mr. Biden detailed both halves of his plan, the administration has offered no projections about the effects of his policies on jobs or growth. Instead, Dr. Rouse and other administration officials cited forecasts by the Moody’s Analytics economist Mark Zandi, which are among the more favorable outside analyses of the president’s agenda.Administration officials say there is no need for their economic team to produce such forecasts. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly called for the White House to produce an estimate of how many jobs would be created by Mr. Biden’s plans. More