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Is New Relief Bill Enough To Help Americans In The Pandemic?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is one of the biggest stimulus packages in history - $900 billion. There is help for the unemployed, also $600 checks for people who qualify, a moratorium on evictions and money to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine. But the last major relief package was passed in March, and so many of those programs are long gone, which means this $900 billion has got its work cut out for it. To talk about whether the new stimulus package is up to the task, I'm joined now by Justin Wolfers. He is professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.

Hey, there. Welcome.

JUSTIN WOLFERS: Happy to talk economics with you.

KELLY: (Laughter) I'm happy to learn from your economic expertise. And let's start with that it's a big number, $900 billion - nothing to sniff at. And yet what do you make of that amount and what is in this bill?

WOLFERS: Well, so, you know, 900 billion - we shouldn't lose sight of it. Sure, it's small compared to the original 2 trillion that was in the CARES Act, which was the initial stimulus. It's still bigger than the stimulus following the financial crisis, roughly of a similar magnitude. President-elect Biden has called it a down payment. That gives you a sense that it might be appropriate for the present moment, but, boy, it's hard to plan anything in this COVID-inflicted economy. And if this turns out not to be enough, it's clear that, at the very least, the Democrats want the ability to go back and look for a little more.

I think as we're calling it a stimulus, we want to be careful. It's actually two things. One, it is partly a stimulus, an attempt to get the economy back to - not even get the economy back to life, to prevent it - to keep it on life support until we get to the vaccine. But also, in a very real sense, there are many families finding it difficult to put food on the table. And actually just giving them the social support they need, thickening up the otherwise porous safety net, is another important part of what Congress is trying to do here.

KELLY: You're making a critical point there, which is that the money from this package is intended to get us up to March, and then the money is going to run out. And March - we are not going to be at the point where the bulk of Americans are vaccinated and the coronavirus crisis is behind us.

WOLFERS: Congress is the institution that just never fails to disappoint. The initial bill passed in March was a very good one and was right for the size of the COVID problem. Many of its measures expired in June. It was time to start working way back in June. Now it's the very end of 2020, and we might finally get a bill. This is a bill that's going to provide extra support for the unemployed, who really are among the most needy right now, all the way through till the middle of March, when we know the vaccine's not really going to be widely available until the middle or later in the year. So if we were trying to build a bridge to the other side, I'm afraid this is only the first half of the bridge.

KELLY: What about - one thing that this latest package has in common with the CARES Act is these built-in expiration dates where, you know, the programs are going to expire on a set date, whether the country is in a better place or not. Setting aside the politics of that, setting aside just the humanitarian goal of trying to help people, from an economic point of view, does building an expiration date - does that make sense?

WOLFERS: The economics of this is bananas. And the logic is simple, which is the argument for this sort of package is the economy is incredibly weak, and people and businesses need help. Congress doesn't know what the future holds, and it doesn't know that things will be better by the middle of March. And so all they've done is circled a random date on a calendar and said, that's when things run out. Not everything runs out on the same date, but it's all very calendar-dependent. It wouldn't have been much harder instead to say, here's the set of programs we're going to put in place until the unemployment rate falls back towards something that's a lot more normal.

Look. This was the huge mistake they made in the first CARES Act, which is they said, here's what we'll do through to June. And then June came, and the economy was still in a hole. Democrats said they wanted a 3 trillion stimulus. Republicans said they wanted a $1 trillion stimulus. So they did what Washington always does, which is they compromised on zero dollars and getting nothing done for the next six months.

KELLY: Just briefly, is there anything you like about this relief bill?

WOLFERS: I like the fact they're doing it. Actually, you know, the bill is chock full of little bits that you may not like here and there, but helping businesses, helping the unemployed, getting money out to households - all of that is a good thing. Look. This is pretty good work. It's just a little bit too late.

KELLY: That is Justin Wolfers. He is professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.

Thank you so much.

WOLFERS: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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