BALTIMORE (AP) — It's been two weeks since President Donald Trump signed into law a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that will distribute money to struggling individuals and businesses. It feels like a lot longer than that to James Stearns of Gulfport, Mississippi.
His job installing vinyl floors was reduced to just one day a week because of the coronavirus outbreak. He’s barely sleeping. The April rent on his trailer is past due. Unless the combined $2,400 that he and his wife are to receive from the rescue package arrives soon, they and their two chihuahuas will be homeless.
“I’m fixing to be evicted — I can’t pay anything,” said Stearns, 52. “I don’t even have power right now. Hot as it is, we’re sitting here sweating to death.”
The administration is in a race against time, trying to provide families and businesses with enough money to survive the devastating economic plunge caused by the pandemic. Neither the White House nor the Treasury Department could say when asked late last week how much of the $2.2 trillion has actually reached needy Americans. Economists have said that the cash infusions will be crucial for sustaining the world’s largest economy.
The task of injecting this much cash into the entire country on a scale never before attempted is monumental. And it's urgent: One in 10 U.S. workers lost their jobs in the past three weeks. Half of working households say they've lost income. The economy is expected to shrink at a shocking 30% annual rate in the April-June quarter.
“There is no way we could have been operationally prepared to put this much money into the economy immediately,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which has long advocated for fiscal restraint but supported the rescue package.
The $290 billion in checks to individuals is just starting to flow and might go out in meaningful sums beginning Monday, according to comments by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a memo from the IRS. About a third of the $349 billion for preserving small businesses' payrolls has been approved. But the government hasn't said how much money has actually gone to those employers so far.
The major airlines, seeking $25 billion to cover their payroll expenses, are still negotiating with Treasury over the terms. It remains unclear whether the government will proceed with a plan to take ownership stakes in the airlines in exchange for that aid.
Most states are still working to try to distribute the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits provided in the federal package, on top of state benefits. Overloaded, outdated computer systems are delaying the process in some states. There is also health and disaster spending, aid to state governments, payroll tax credits and $510 billion in loans for large employers for which the guidelines are still unknown.
The roll-out of congressional aid has been notably slow compared with the aggressive steps taken by the Federal Reserve, which quickly slashed its benchmark interest rate to near zero and offered $2 trillion in loans to businesses and state and local governments. The Fed can shore up markets and instill confidence. But families and small businesses depend most on Congress for immediate help.
Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, argues that the distribution of rescue money has been moving in a timely manner.
“The extra $600 in the unemployment benefits — that’s come online way faster than we originally thought,” Kudlow told Fox Business Network.
While a two-week delay to establish the distribution process won't likely much deepen the damage to an already diminished economy, many small businesses will need the aid before a next wave of bills hits, said Richard Prisinzano, director of policy analysis at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model.
“The businesses that are most in danger are the really small firms that only have a month or two of working capital," Prisinzano said.
Bedeviled by technological problems, the Small Business Administration has struggled to manage the $349 billion in forgivable loans for companies with fewer than 500 employees. Some banks have moved slowly, in part because of unclear guidance. The SBA received 381,000 applications for loans totaling $100 billion as of Wednesday afternoon. Most companies, though, are still waiting for their money.
If Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing in Denver, doesn’t receive loan money within two weeks, he’ll need to cut expenses again after having already slashed nearly $2,000 in monthly costs. He would ask his landlord to defer his rent payment and cancel non-essential services like water delivery.
“Our last resort is cutting a part-time employee, which would save another $2,000 a month but which is the last thing I want to do right now,” Walker said.
Large companies are also at risk at a time when no one knows the duration or severity of the downturn — or how fast a recovery might arrive. The airlines, in particular, are bleeding money as air travel has essentially halted. Delta Air Lines estimates its losses at $60 million a day, United Airlines at $100 million a day. They and other carriers have raised new credit. But the major airlines are waiting to hear from Treasury about whether their applications to cover payrolls for six months has been approved.
Leading retailers, too, are reeling, with entire supply chains — clothiers, importers, factories — desperate for aid. Discretionary spending by shoppers is expected to collapse for the first half of the year.
Nordstrom has warned that it doesn't know when it will be able to reopen its physical stores and that prolonged closures could cause it to become financially distressed. Ralph Lauren and Gap Inc. have announced that, for now, they've stopped ordering products for the fall. Other retailers will likely follow.
Any rebound in spending on travel and clothing will likely depend on U.S. consumers having survived the downturn without losing their savings or sinking into debt. That's why the additional unemployment benefits in the federal rescue package are so vital for John Barker and his wife, who are Las Vegas residents and have both been laid off.
Barker, 65, handled safety issues on oil rigs; his wife worked at a casino. The additional $600 a week in federal unemployment aid for both would be enough to maintain their mortgage and expenses without having to tap savings.
“It definitely makes a difference between me calling all my creditors and telling them I can’t pay versus making all my ends meet,” Barker said.