Pandemic Cash Made a Difference

Millions needed help and got it. From The New York Times:

In offering most Americans two more rounds of stimulus [or relief] 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 newย analysis of Census Bureau surveysย argues that the two latest rounds of aid significantly improved Americansโ€™ 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.

โ€œWe see an immediate decline among multiple lines of hardship concentrated among the most disadvantaged families,โ€ said H. Luke Shaefer, a professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored the study . . .

Given the scale of the stimulus aid โ€” a total of $585 billion โ€” a reduction in hardship may seem like a given, and there is no clear way to measure whether the benefits were worth the costs. . . . 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. . . .

โ€œCash aid offers families great flexibility to address their most pressing problems, and getting it out quickly is something the government knows how to do,โ€ 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 [Chenetta 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 โ€” $1,200 for the two of them โ€” let her pay small parts of multiple bills and restock the freezer.

โ€œIt bridged a gap,โ€ 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. โ€œI really got down and depressed,โ€ she said. โ€œPart of the benefit of the stimulus to me was God saying, โ€˜I got you.โ€™ Spiritual and emotional reassurance. It took a lot of stress off me.โ€