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    Big Economic Challenges Await Biden and the Fed This Fall

    Expiring unemployment benefits and the Delta variant add uncertainty to a recovery that has brought strong growth but an unusual labor market.WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy is heading toward an increasingly uncertain autumn as a surge in the Delta variant of the coronavirus coincides with the expiration of expanded unemployment benefits for millions of people, complicating what was supposed to be a return to normal as a wave of workers re-entered the labor market.That dynamic is creating an unexpected challenge for the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve in managing what has been a fairly swift recovery from a recession. For months, officials at the White House and the central bank have pointed toward the fall as a potential turning point for an economy that is struggling to fully shake off the effects of the pandemic — particularly in the job market, which remains millions of positions below prepandemic levels.The widespread availability of Covid-19 vaccines, the reopening of schools and the expiration of enhanced jobless benefits have been seen as a potent cocktail that should prod workers off the sidelines and into the millions of jobs that employers say they are having trouble filling.But that optimistic outlook might be imperiled by the resurgent virus and policymakers’ response to it. Big companies are already delaying return-to-office plans, an early and visible sign that life may not return to normal as rapidly as expected. At the same time, long-running federal supports for people hurt by the pandemic are going away, including a moratorium on evictions, which ended on Saturday, and an extra $300 per week for unemployed workers. That benefit expires on Sept. 6, and some states have moved to end it sooner.Federal lawmakers are also planning to repurpose more than $200 billion worth of Covid relief to help pay for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. An infrastructure bill moving through the Senate would rescind previously allocated virus funds for colleges and universities along with unused unemployment benefits and airline aid. It would also claw back unspent funds from some expired small-business programs to help offset the plan’s $550 billion in new spending. Democratic leaders have been adamant that the Senate will vote on the infrastructure bill before leaving Washington for a scheduled August recess.White House economists have said they see no need yet to consider major new measures to bolster the recovery. After months of blockbuster economic growth, falling unemployment numbers, and complaints from business leaders and Republicans that government support is preventing workers from taking jobs, administration officials remain locked into their current policy stance despite renewed risks.Administration officials have said President Biden is not pushing to extend the extra $300 per week for jobless people. It’s unclear whether the administration will try to extend a program that expanded unemployment benefits to workers who would not typically qualify for them, including the self-employed, gig workers and part-timers.Officials say the $1.9 trillion economic aid package that Mr. Biden signed in March, and that caused forecasters to lift their estimates for growth this year, has given the economy enough cushion to endure another surge from the virus. Mr. Biden has also vowed that the virus will not lead to new “lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures and disruptions” like last year’s.“We are not going back to that,” he said last week.White House advisers say the most important thing the president can do for the economy is continue to make the case for more people to get vaccinated. On Thursday, Mr. Biden asked states to use money from the March stimulus package to pay $100 to every newly vaccinated person and said the government would reimburse employers who gave workers time off to be vaccinated or take others to get shots.“We have held the view from the beginning that addressing the pandemic and recovering the economy were inextricably linked. That continues to be true,” Brian Deese, who heads Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council, said in an interview. “But because of the progress that we have made in addressing the pandemic and in putting in place both historic and durable economic policy supports, we have a set of tools right now to address both of these challenges.”The Fed is taking an optimistic but wait-and-see approach. Central bankers voted at their July meeting to leave emergency support in place for now. They gave no precise date for when they may begin to reduce their help for the economy, though they are beginning to draw up a plan for paring back support.Much like their counterparts at the White House, officials at the Fed are counting on solid economic data this autumn. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said last week that he expected strong labor market progress in the months ahead, partly because virus fears and child care issues should subside.“There’s also been very generous unemployment benefits, which are now rolling off. They’ll be fully rolled off in a couple of months,” Mr. Powell said during a news conference after the Fed’s July meeting. “All of those factors should wane, and because of that we should see strong job creation moving forward.”Administration and Federal Reserve officials have expressed hope that children’s return to schools and fading fears of the virus will encourage more people to begin looking for work again.Whitney Curtis for The New York TimesMr. Biden told a CNN forum in Ohio on July 21 that he still sees no evidence that the supplemental benefits have had a “serious impact” on hiring. But even if they had, he said, they would soon run their course.“We’re ending all those things that are the things keeping people back from going back to work,” he said.That stance carries some risk. While the economy grew faster in the first half of this year than it had in decades, the job market is still missing 6.8 million positions from its February 2020 level, and while policymakers are optimistic, it is not clear how quickly those jobs will come back. The economy has never reopened from a pandemic before, and nobody knows to what degree unemployment insurance is dissuading workers.“Seven to nine million Americans should be working right now if the pandemic had never happened, so that’s a lot of Americans that we need to put back to work,” Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “But is it six months, or is it two years? I’m not sure.”If it takes workers more time to go back into jobs, it could make for a much slower economic recovery than either the Fed or the White House is banking on. Workers stuck on the sidelines without enhanced benefits might pull back on spending, hurting demand and slowing the rapid rebound that has been underway in recent months.So far, administration economists remain heartened by the economic data. Officials said last week that they saw no evidence yet of the Delta variant’s hurting economic activity, and that they were hopeful that the more than 160 million Americans who were vaccinated would not pull back spending even if the variant continued to spread — making this wave of the virus less economically damaging than past ones.And as government spending support for the economy slows down, the Fed is still keeping money cheap to borrow, which should continue to pad economic growth.Shoppers in Los Angeles, where masks are required indoors. New public health guidelines could again chill some economic activity.Alex Welsh for The New York TimesFed officials have said they want to see more proof of the labor market’s healing before they slow their monthly bond purchases, which will be their first step toward a more normal policy setting.Mr. Powell said at his news conference last week that “we’re some way away from having had substantial further progress toward the maximum employment goal.”“I would want to see some strong job numbers,” he added.In the text of a speech on Friday, Lael Brainard, an influential Fed governor, said she wanted to see September economic data to assess whether the labor market was strong enough for the Fed to begin dialing back support, which suggests she would not favor signaling a start to the slowdown until later this fall. But her colleague Christopher J. Waller said in a CNBC interview on Monday that he would probably prefer to begin pulling back bond purchases quickly, if jobs data hold up, perhaps as soon as October.Increases in interest rates — the Fed’s more traditional, and more potent, tool — remain farther away. Most Fed officials in June projected that they would not lift their federal funds rate until 2023 at earliest, because they would like the labor market to return to full strength first.How rapidly the economy can achieve that goal is an open question. Employers regularly complain about the enhanced benefits, but even they have sent mixed messages on whether those are the main driver keeping labor at bay.“Many contacts were optimistic that labor availability would improve in the fall as schools restart and enhanced unemployment benefits end,” the Atlanta Fed’s qualitative report on business conditions found in June. “However, there were several who do not expect labor supply to improve for six to nine months.”Peter Ganong, an economist at the University of Chicago, said that if the pattern that he and his fellow researchers had seen in employment data held, he would not expect a wave of workers to jump back into jobs just because supplemental benefits expired.“So far, we see small employment differences even when vaccines are becoming available,” he said. Mr. Ganong and his co-authors compared the job-finding rates of people whose wages were more fully replaced by supplemental benefits and people whose wages were less fully replaced. They found small and relatively steady differences, even as the economy reopened.But Mr. Ganong cautioned that his research tracked the supplemental insurance. For many workers, unemployment benefits could come to an end altogether as extensions lapse, which may have a bigger effect.There is plenty of room for labor market progress. People in their prime working years are participating in the labor market by working or searching for jobs at much lower rates than before the pandemic — and that metric has made little progress in recent months.“Generally speaking, Americans want to work, and they’ll find their way into the jobs that they want,” Mr. Powell said last week. “It may take some time, though.”Alan Rappeport More

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    Covid Aid Programs Spur Record Drop in Poverty

    WASHINGTON — The huge increase in government aid prompted by the coronavirus pandemic will cut poverty nearly in half this year from prepandemic levels and push the share of Americans in poverty to the lowest level on record, according to the most comprehensive analysis yet of a vast but temporary expansion of the safety net.The number of poor Americans is expected to fall by nearly 20 million from 2018 levels, a decline of almost 45 percent. The country has never cut poverty so much in such a short period of time, and the development is especially notable since it defies economic headwinds — the economy has nearly seven million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic.The extraordinary reduction in poverty has come at extraordinary cost, with annual spending on major programs projected to rise fourfold to more than $1 trillion. Yet without further expensive new measures, millions of families may find the escape from poverty brief. The three programs that cut poverty most — stimulus checks, increased food stamps and expanded unemployment insurance — have ended or are scheduled to soon revert to their prepandemic size.While poverty has fallen most among children, its retreat is remarkably broad: It has dropped among Americans who are white, Black, Latino and Asian, and among Americans of every age group and residents of every state.Poverty Rates Have Fallen for Every Demographic Group More

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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