By CHRISTOPHER RUGABER
AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The $900 billion economic relief package that President Donald Trump signed over the weekend will deliver vital aid to millions of struggling households and businesses. Yet his nearly one-week delay in signing the bill means that it will take that much longer for the financial support to arrive.
The legislation that Trump signed at his private club in Florida on Sunday will extend two unemployment benefit programs providing aid to 14 million people after they expired last week.
It will also provide small-business loans and as much as $600 in cash payments to most people. In addition, it extends a moratorium on evictions for a month. The legislation does not include aid for states and localities that are being forced to turn to layoffs and service cuts as their tax revenue dries up — a potential long-term drag on the economy.
The legislation extends the two federal jobless aid programs until mid-March and adds a $300 supplemental weekly payment. But because Trump signed the bill on Sunday, a day after the two programs lapsed, the unemployed could be out a week of benefits.
“The date was really unfortunate,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy group. “Now there’s some question as to when this gets paid out.”
It is possible that the Labor Department will interpret the law to allow payments for the week ending Jan. 2, Evermore said. But if the bill had been signed Saturday, payments clearly could have restarted this week.
And it will most likely take two to three weeks for states to modify their computer systems to resume the aid programs and pay out the extra $300, Evermore said, a process that could have started earlier, after Congress first approved the bill about a week ago.
The delay will force those out of work to make hard decisions about paying for food, medicine or rent.
“These are people who have been living in poverty for months,” she said. “Any delay is an immense hardship.”
Months from now, economists say, the widespread distribution and use of vaccines could unleash a strong economic rebound as the virus is quashed, businesses reopen, hiring picks up and consumers spend freely again. Yet the aid most likely won’t last long enough to support struggling small businesses and the unemployed until the vaccine has been broadly distributed and a strong rebound has begun.
“Some aid is better than no aid,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “It’s positive. But it’s likely going to be insufficient to bridge the gap from today until late spring or early summer, when the health situation fully improves.”
President-elect Joe Biden has said he will seek another relief package soon after his inauguration next month. That will most likely lead to yet another a political brawl; some Senate Republicans have said that with vaccines on the way, further government aid may be unnecessary.
The new aid package should boost the broader economy, according to Goldman Sachs. Economists at the investment bank said late Sunday that they are increasing their growth forecast for the first three months of next year to 5% at an annual rate, up from their earlier estimate of 3%.
Much of that improvement is coming in response to the $600 stimulus checks, Goldman economists said.
Right now, however, the economy is in a renewed slump as a resurgent virus intensifies hardships for businesses. Consumers have cut back on shopping, traveling, dining out and attending sports and entertainment events. Key measures of the economy — retail sales, applications for jobless aid, travel spending — have weakened.
About 14 million Americans would have seen their federal unemployment benefits cut off if Congress hadn’t agreed to the new package after months of stalemate. Perhaps 2 million Americans would have been able to transfer to a state-run extended benefit program, but the rest would have had no income at all. More than 4 million have already used all the unemployment aid available to them, which lasts 26 weeks in most states; they will be able to reapply.
A program that provides unemployment aid for self-employed and contract workers will now pay benefits for 50 weeks, up from 39. A federal program that provides extended benefits, on top of the 26 provided by most states, will also last for another 11 weeks.
Kathy Richardson, 60, hopes to catch up on the car and rental payments that she has fallen behind on, now that she can reapply for unemployment benefits. She started receiving jobless aid in the spring after she was laid off from her executive assistant job at a dental practice but the benefits ran out in November.
“If it hadn’t been for family and friends I’d be homeless,” she said. “It’s been very stressful.”