As $1,400 stimulus checks arrive in millions of American bank accounts, a lot of the money is likely to stay there for a while.
A new Yahoo Finance–Harris Poll finds that 62% of Americans say they need more stimulus money to help pay for necessities, but only 41% expect to actually spend the money that way. The same set of respondents say they only spent 43% of the money they got from two prior rounds of stimulus, in January of this year and March of last year. So stimulus recipients may change some of their spending plans once they get the money.
Forty percent of respondents say they plan to save the money, with another 36% planning to pay down debt. Ten percent say they plan to invest the money in traditional assets, while another 7% plan to spend it on cryptocurrencies. Harris surveyed 1,052 U.S. adults from March 12–15. The survey allowed multiple responses.
President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is somewhat controversial because of the huge price tag and non-emergency nature of much of the spending. Congress has now approved nearly $6 trillion in relief measures since the coronavirus pandemic exploded last March, an unprecedented sum. Direct payments to individuals account for roughly $400 billion of the cost of the latest bill. Nearly 90% of American adults will get a payment, with the benefit phasing out for incomes above $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for married couples.
Some Americans are in acute financial distress. The coronavirus pandemic has axed 9.5 million jobs during the last 12 months and slashed incomes for others working less. Lower-income Americans working in service industries have suffered the most.
Payments not targeted
Yet the Yahoo Finance–Harris poll results do suggest the relief payments aren’t targeted at those who need them most, which is one gripe economists have with broad-based stimulus. Giving money to most of the population isn’t as effective as reserving it for people filing unemployment claims or demonstrating other forms of need. It can even be counterproductive if free money is fueling speculative bubbles in cryptocurrency or “meme stocks,” which may be the case. Other surveys, by Mizuho Securities and Deutsche Bank, also found that some stimulus recipients are putting the money into speculative investments.
This may be fine with Biden and Congressional Democrats who drafted the bill. Traditional stimulus is meant to compensate for a decline in private-sector spending by pumping more federal dollars into the economy. That money only “stimulates” economic activity when it’s spent, which is why well-targeted stimulus normally goes to those most likely to spend it quickly.
Pandemic stimulus is different, because there are some types of activity the government shouldn’t stimulate at the moment—such as going out to movies and restaurants. So if consumers save some of that money to spend later, when it’s safer to go out, it might still functional as stimulus, only delayed. Paying down debt or helping others with some of the stimulus money serves a purpose, too, since it positions consumers to be in better financial shape when things get back to normal.
As a political ploy, delayed stimulus is in Democrats’ interest, because it will goose the economy well into 2022, which is a midterm election year. There may not be any more checks from Washington next year, but a robust recovery would obviously boost Democrats’ odds of maintaining control of Congress and perhaps expanding their thin majorities.
The Yahoo Finance–Harris poll also found that 29% of Americans say their finances are in worse shape since the pandemic hit, with only 19% saying they’re better. That reflects the ongoing damage caused by lost jobs and business shutdowns. Biden isn’t wrong to say America still needs help. He’s just being more generous than necessary.
Note: An earlier version of this story said the poll found most respondents expecting a third Covid relief payment don’t need the money; the story has been updated to fix the error.