(CBS DFW) — The pandemic is still going almost 17 months after COVID first shut down the economy. While society casts about for some sort of new normal, the Delta variant is pushing up case numbers among the unvaccinated. The rise comes amidst improving economic conditions and threatens to tap the brakes on the recovery. Some people are still waiting for their finances to improve. Unemployment hasn’t fallen to pre-pandemic levels, even with jobs widely available in certain sectors. About half of all states have at least attempted to discontinue the federal unemployment bonus early. Millions of people remain short of food and behind on bills and could certainly use a fourth stimulus check. Can they expect more help from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2021?
That question has not been definitively answered. But many clues point in the direction things are heading.
Economic Recovery For Some
Relief payments were intended to ease COVID’s economic impact and support the economy in the process. The third round of relief payments started back in March, courtesy of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Since then, about 169 million people have received up to $1,400 each, accounting for most of the $422 billion set aside. The ARP checks closely followed the $600 payments from January, which came nine months after the $1,200 payments from the pandemic’s early days. They seem to have worked to some degree, but have also helped many who didn’t actually need the money.
In the second quarter of 2021, the U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 6.5 percent, according to the advance estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (Supply shortages may have prevented even faster growth.) That continues the torrid pace from the first quarter, which saw 6.4 percent growth. The Conference Board forecasts continued growth through the rest of the year. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP), an estimate of economic activity across the U.S., has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels. By that general measure, the economy has already recovered.
Broad segments of the workforce have endured little economic hardship during the pandemic. Many jobs performed at a desk in an office are just as easily performed at a desk in someone’s home. And with fewer places to spend money during the pandemic, plus three stimulus checks, many Americans saved more than they might have otherwise. The personal saving rate ballooned to 33.7 percent in April of 2020 and has remained well above pre-pandemic levels ever since. In June of 2021, it sat at 9.4 percent, still above the 8.3 percent from February of 2020, the month before the pandemic started. On Face the Nation, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan estimated that its customers have not spent 65-70 percent of their last two stimulus checks. With many households sitting on a lot more money than they had in early 2020, pent-up demand has helped drive the broader economy during the rebound.
The housing market has also surged, thanks to low interest rates and people stuck at home realizing the limitations of their living space. The National Association of Realtors recently reported that the national median sales price for an existing home hit $370,600 in June, up 24.4 percent from June of 2020. That number rose or stayed the same all over the country. Much of that rise was helped along by houses priced above the median. Housing inventory increased over May, but was still down 18.8 percent year over year. And of the homes that sold in June, 89 percent were for sale for less than a month.
The stock market continues to perform well too. The Dow Jones remains far above where it was at this time last year. It regularly sets new record highs, or at least approaches them. It opened Wednesday morning at 35,047. Concerns about the Delta variant and lagging vaccination rates in parts of the world still linger. Slowing vaccination rates in the U.S. have also become a concern. Individual investors, flush with extra stimulus cash, remain in the market. Bigger investors continue to bet on a strong economic recovery in the months ahead.
While certain experts foresee some of the strongest economic growth in decades, many are also worried about higher inflation. Recent projections indicate that prices will rise about 5.5 percent in 2021, though the Fed believes inflation will be more like 3.0 percent. That’s compared to the 2.3 percent rate in 2019 and 1.7 percent rate in 2020. The latest data shows prices rising 5.4 percent over the last 12 months, the highest 12-month rate in over a decade. Prices moved up 0.9 percent in June. Rising used car prices account for about one-third of the rise, with inventory shortages largely to blame. Lumber prices also have played a part. Some of the rise is also likely due to depressed prices returning as the economy moves on from the pandemic.
Price hikes and product shortages also stem from the economy opening up all at once. Companies can’t keep pace with a year’s worth of pent-up consumer demand. They also have to revive and retool their supply chains in the midst of drastic changes in consumer demand patterns. And this is all happening as shipping issues and other slowdowns continue to slow production and delivery.
COVID has altered how and what people consume. The way these changes play out in a post-COVID world isn’t necessarily predictable. Companies, however, have to guess now where demand for their product will be when all the dust settles. Predicting the future is hard enough in a normal economy. It becomes much harder in an economy emerging from a pandemic. These price changes and shortages across a whole range of products will likely continue to plague consumers in the short-term. But economists predict they should improve with time. And some evidence, like the falling price of lumber, is already bearing that out.
No Economic Recovery For Others
The pandemic has better highlighted the growing imbalance across the broader economy. While many households have financially flourished during COVID, many others have fallen far behind where they were in early 2020. Much of the gap depends on whether wage earners could work remotely or had public-facing jobs that required them to be on-site.
Financial insecurity is still widespread, and the loss of a job and the loss of hours have been some of the main reasons. Ten percent of American adults (approximately 20 million people) reported a shortage of food in their household over the previous week, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of U.S. Census survey data from late June and early July. Approximately 16 percent of renters (11.4 million people) have fallen behind on their rent, including 21 percent of renters with children in their household. The federal eviction moratorium, which expired on July 31, didn’t forgive rent that was owed, it pushed the debt into the future. That debt is now due, and only a small fraction of the $46 billion Congress allocated for rental assistance has actually made it to tenants and landlords. So a wave of evictions may be coming soon.
As of late June/early July, over a quarter of American adults (63 million people) reported some difficulty keeping up with expenses in the prior week. An April survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York determined that over 58 percent of those receiving a third stimulus check have or will use the money on consumption or paying down debt. That includes debt incurred during the pandemic. A Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll from last February listed food and housing costs as the second and third most popular uses of the then-upcoming stimulus.
Employment also remains below pre-pandemic levels. The unemployment rate ticked up to 5.9 percent in June, with about 6.8 million fewer people employed as compared to early 2020. Most of them were in low-wage jobs lost during the pandemic that have not returned. Approximately 400,000 people initially applied for unemployment insurance for the week ending July 24. (A typical pre-pandemic week saw about 250,000 new unemployment applications.) Another 95,000 people sought Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which supports freelance and self-employed workers. As of the week ending July 10, about 13.2 million workers were receiving some form of unemployment aid. Many jobless Americans have not received unemployment insurance and other government benefits, because of long waits, perceived ineligibility and other issues.
Job growth continues to lag expectations for many possible reasons. Some have argued that overly generous benefits made unemployment more attractive than working. But other considerations factor into one’s ability to work too. Because many schools stayed remote for the entire school year, many parents lacked adequate childcare. With schools on summer break, that childcare issue may not change. The full vaccination rate is 49.7 percent for the country. But state percentages range from 67.7 percent in Vermont to 34.5 percent in Mississippi. Many counties across the country have vaccination rates lower than that.
So the threat of COVID, particularly the now-dominant Delta variant, is still real in places. Many people remain uncomfortable working in public around strangers. A gap between labor force skills and job requirements can make hiring more difficult, not to mention the rising standards of what workers will accept. And then there’s the general friction that inevitably arises when an entire economy slams its foot on the gas.
As before the pandemic, many who are willing to work cannot find jobs with the wages and benefits they need to survive. According to Marie Newman, a U.S. Representative from Illinois, “there is not a shortage of Americans looking for work, there is a shortage of Americans willing to work for starvation wages with no benefits, no health care, and no protections during a pandemic.”
About half of all states are trying to force the issue and push people back into the job market. These states, most led by Republicans, have discontinued the $300 federal unemployment benefit bonus for their citizens ahead of the official Labor Day end date. Alabama, Idaho, and Nebraska are among the states that stopped benefits on June 19. Arkansas, Florida, Ohio, and Texas followed on June 26. Maryland and Tennessee wrapped up benefits on July 3, and Arizona on July 10. But many workers have sued their states. Arkansas, Indiana and Maryland have since temporarily reinstated benefits. A recent analysis from a payroll services company called Gusto showed that cutting off federal benefits may not be leading to more hiring.
The federal unemployment bonus and the previous round of stimulus checks have helped Americans still awaiting their recovery to pay bills and put food on the table. The advance Child Tax Credit provides some additional support to families. But this money often runs out before some people can take another job. And some politicians feel that the payments haven’t been enough.
Support For A Fourth Stimulus Check
A group of Democratic Senators, including Ron Wyden of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, sent a letter to President Joe Biden at the end of March requesting “recurring direct payments and automatic unemployment insurance extensions tied to economic conditions.”
As the Senators reasoned in their letter, “this crisis is far from over, and families deserve certainty that they can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Families should not be at the mercy of constantly-shifting legislative timelines and ad hoc solutions.”
An earlier letter to President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris from 53 Representatives, led by Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, carved out a similar position. “Recurring direct payments until the economy recovers will help ensure that people can meet their basic needs, provide racially equitable solutions, and shorten the length of the recession.”
Additional co-signers included New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, two other notable names among House Progressives. The letter didn’t place a number on the requested stimulus payments. But a tweet soon after put it at $2,000 per month for the length of the pandemic.
$2,000 monthly payments until the pandemic is over. https://t.co/6tuia6prFJ
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 28, 2021
A May 17 letter from members of the House Ways and Means Committee renewed the push for additional stimulus. “The ARP’s $1,400 checks alone will keep 11 million people out of poverty this year, with UI (unemployment insurance) expansion and other provisions in the bill accounting for the another five million. A fourth and fifth check could keep an additional 12 million out of poverty. Combined with the effects of the ARP, direct payments could reduce the number in poverty in 2021 from 44 million to 16 million.”
There’s also talk about automatic payments that would go out when specific economic metrics reach certain thresholds (for example, if unemployment rises to 6 percent). These triggers would make stimulus checks a reactive force in countering what’s happening in the economy, sparing struggling Americans from Congressional delays.
A majority of Americans also favor recurring relief payments. According to a January poll from Data For Progress, nearly two-thirds of all voters support $2,000 monthly payments to all Americans for the length of the pandemic. Supporters include a majority of Independents and Republicans. A struggling restaurant owner’s online petition calling for $2,000 monthly payments for every American adult has exceeded 2.7 million signatures.
The Urban Institute estimated that another stimulus payment could reduce poverty by at least 6.4 percent in 2021. Many economists are also onboard. A 2020 open letter from experts in the field argued “direct cash payments are an essential tool that will boost economic security, drive consumer spending, hasten the recovery, and promote certainty at all levels of government and the economy – for as long as necessary.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a new budget into law, which includes a stimulus check for about two-thirds of the state’s residents. The $100 billion California Comeback Plan, as part of their $262.2 billion budget, will pay $600 to residents earning between $30,000 and $75,000 per year. Residents in that income range who have kids will receive $1,100. The state’s previous stimulus went to those with an annual income under $30,000.
The Biden administration, which authored the third round of stimulus checks, isn’t against a fourth round. But the president recognizes their high price tag. He also seems to have other priorities, specifically infrastructure and help for families. Neither the the American Jobs Plan or the American Families Plan included another relief payment as proposed. Other plans currently bouncing around Congress don’t either.
“He’s happy to hear from a range of ideas on what would be most effective and what’s most important to the economy moving forward,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “But he’s also proposed what he thinks is going to be the most effective for the short term for putting people back to work, to getting through this pivotal period of time, and also to making us more competitive in the long term.”
A Fourth Stimulus Check Is Unlikely
All of this tacit and explicit support keeps alive the possibility of another stimulus check. The support doesn’t make a fourth payment likely, however. And there are many reasons why.
Vaccinations are progressing steadily, albeit not as quickly as before. Adults and those at least 12 years old are eligible to be inoculated in all 50 states. (Trials for children under 12 continue.) Three different options are available to the public. But actually putting needles in arms is taking time, even with supply readily available. Americans have received over 347 million doses, with 57.9 percent of the population having received at least one dose and 49.7 percent completely vaccinated. Vaccination numbers continue to increase at a rate of over half a million doses per day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had advised that the fully vaccinated could forgo masks and social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings. But their revised guidance recommends that vaccinated people in areas with higher COVID transmission revert to wearing masks indoors again.
With vaccinations rising, the nation’s economy continues to recover. Looser restrictions have helped businesses, and jobs are available in many sectors. Many industries are even complaining of worker shortages, which can lead to wage increases. The number of new unemployment claims remains lower than it has been for much of the pandemic. Consumer confidence has plateaued at its highest point since early last year. Inflation concerns and rising COVID case numbers could dampen optimism about business conditions and the job market.
Consumer spending drives two-thirds of the country’s economy. And excess pandemic savings, along with three stimulus checks, has boosted people’s spending power. That spending power has increased even more since monthly Child Tax Credit payments started arriving on July 15. An improved financial position generally also raises optimism for the future. The ongoing vaccinations, which have allowed the economy to safely reopen, certainly help. All that additional spending, along with the release of pent-up demand, has led to more jobs as companies hire to address consumer needs. With the economy surging, a fourth round of stimulus checks seems less urgent.
Aside from the generally improving economy, the political machinations of Washington make a fourth stimulus check a longshot. The American Rescue Plan, which included the third stimulus check, passed along party lines. Republicans were not interested in spending anywhere close to $1.9 trillion, though some did support the third relief payment. They termed the package a “blue state bailout,” claiming it went well beyond the scope of COVID and would increase the deficit, leading to inflation.
The Democrats used a process called reconciliation to pass the bill in the Senate without Republican support. That allows budget-related matters to proceed with a simple majority rather than the filibuster-proof 60 votes. Generally only one reconciliation bill can pass per fiscal year. But a subsequent ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, who interprets the legislative body’s rules, opened up a path for additional spending legislation. Without reconciliation, any bill would need at least 10 Republican votes, along with every Democratic vote.
But the Biden administration has other priorities. One of its biggest is addressing infrastructure. The proposed American Jobs Plan, which aimed to rebuild roads, repair bridges, do away with lead pipes, extend broadband, modernize the country’s electric grid and much more, carried a price tag of $2.3 trillion. Biden and a group of Senators from both parties agreed upon a framework for a scaled-back infrastructure plan costing under $1 trillion. The resulting bipartisan bill continues to move forward in the Senate. Neither the original version nor the bipartisan version includes a fourth stimulus check. One could, in theory, be added. That seems unlikely given the price tag.
The American Families Plan, focusing on childcare, education and paid family leave, would cost another $1.8 trillion in its initial form. Democrats are trying to push forward a $3.5 trillion “soft” infrastructure deal that would include all this and more. A fourth stimulus check is not included, though one could theoretically still be added as well. The American Families Plan or the Democrats’ extended plan is a more likely home for a fourth stimulus check than a traditional infrastructure plan. Funding these plans may also involve tax increases, which Republicans would oppose.
Plenty more negotiating seems inevitable before any bill comes to a final vote. And securing 10 Republican supporters in the Senate for whatever legislation results is far from certain. Democrats may very well be anticipating the need to use reconciliation again to push through legislation.
Joe Manchin of West Virginia, among the most centrist Democratic Senators, has warned against overusing reconciliation. He is also apparently unwilling to do away with the filibuster, which would lower the number of votes needed to pass legislation to 51. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t want to abandon the filibuster either. With bipartisanship still hard to come by (the tentative infrastructure deal notwithstanding), the Biden administration is in a tough spot. They’re unlikely to add a fourth stimulus check to any plan, driving up the price tag by hundreds of billions of dollars. They’re also unlikely to use reconciliation to pass another stimulus check on its own.
What Other Aid Is Out There?
While a fourth stimulus check is improbable, more direct payments to Americans have already been signed into law. The American Rescue Plan includes an improved Child Tax Credit and extended unemployment benefits.
Under the revised Child Tax Credit, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is paying out $3,600 per year for each child up to five years old and $3,000 per year for each child ages six through 17. Monthly payments of up to $300 per child started July 15 and will continue through December of 2021. The remainder is to be issued when the recipient files their 2021 taxes. The benefit does not depend on the recipient’s current tax burden. In other words, qualifying families will receive the full amount, regardless of how much — or little — they owe in taxes. Payments start to phase out beyond a $75,000 annual income for individuals and beyond $150,000 for married couples. The more generous credit will apply only for 2021, though Biden has stated his interest in extending it through 2025.
The American Rescue Plan also extended the weekly federal unemployment insurance bonus of $300 through Labor Day. (As mentioned before, half of all states have ended the additional unemployment or will be ending it soon.) Those eligible for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which covers people who have used up their state benefits, and PUA have also seen their benefits extended through early September. PEUC runs out after 53 weeks. PUA expires after 79 weeks. The ARP also added $21.6 billion to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is being distributed to state and local governments, who then assist households. Most of the $46 billion total has yet to reach tenants and landlords.
The infrastructure plan also has the potential to create many jobs across a wide swath of the economy. How the proposed initiatives are ultimately distributed across the scaled-back bipartisan outline or the broader Democratic plan remains to be seen. The American Families Plan includes 12 weeks of paid family leave that could reach as high as $4,000 per month, depending on a worker’s income. It also boosts the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit and places a ceiling on the cost of childcare for many families. The plan sets aside $200 billion for universal preschool. In addition to helping working parents pay for childcare, the plan looks to allow more parents to return to the workforce.
Additional money in people’s pockets from any proposed plan is still hypothetical, of course. Nothing has found its way through Congress yet.
Originally published Tuesday, August 3, 2021 at 12:41 p.m. ET.