The US poverty rate has spiked is the last five months
After months of wrangling, US lawmakers have agreed to a roughly $900bn (£660bn) package of pandemic aid, including direct payments for many Americans and support for businesses and unemployment programmes.
The money is set to accompany a bigger, $1.4tn spending bill to fund government operations over the next nine months.
Many Covid-19 relief programmes were set to expire at the end of the month.
About 12 million Americans were at risk of losing access to jobless benefits.
The House of Representatives and the Senate are expected to vote on the package on Monday. It will then need to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
What do we know about the package?
The new package will include one-off $600 stimulus payments to most Americans, and will boost unemployment payments by $300 per week, extending expiration dates for the jobless programmes until the spring.
It is also set to include more than $300bn in support for businesses, and money for vaccine distribution, schools and renters facing eviction.
The deal was announced on Sunday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican. “We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: More help is on the way,” he said.
The package, he added, contained “targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long”.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, said the package delivered “urgently needed funds to save the lives and livelihoods of the American people as the virus accelerates”.
Who will get the $600 cheques?
Lawmakers said the bill would send $600 per adult or child for individuals earning up to $75,000 or married couples earning up to $150,000, with families earning more receiving less.
The first cheques could arrive as soon as next week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
The payment is half the amount that Congress approved for direct payments during the first round of pandemic relief last spring.
What is not in the bill?
The bill does not include substantial aid to local governments, which had been a top priority for many Democrats. In exchange, Republicans agreed to accept a deal without legal protections for businesses from Covid-related lawsuits.
Mr Schumer said the package would “establish a floor, not a ceiling, for coronavirus relief in 2021”, and that Democrats would push for more aid after President-elect Joe Biden took office on 20 January.
“While this bill is far from perfect … it is a strong shot in the arm to help American families weather the storm,” he said, adding that the package would help local governments indirectly by providing money for schools, Covid-19 testing and other expenses.
Congress was expected to pass the bill by Friday, but negotiations continued through the weekend.
The delays led to concerns over whether the government would shut down without a spending bill. Washington has been operating on temporary funding since October, the start of the federal government’s financial year.
How are Americans reacting?
Economic analysts welcomed the deal, but have warned that it likely is too small and arrives too late to avert a slowdown in the recovery.
They have also expressed concerns that money devoted to the stimulus cheques – which some families are likely to save – takes away from other, more targeted programmes that might provide more effective boost to the economy.
“Any Covid relief bill is better than no Covid relief bill, but the measures set to be passed by Congress … do not represent the most efficient use of the $900B total cost,” wrote Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.
However, on social media, many said the cheque should have been larger, saying $600 per person wasn’t large enough to help meaningfully.
“$600 will hopefully save some lives but we all know it’s just barely scraping by,” wrote one social media user in California.
I’m glad you’re calling them “survival” checks because $600 will hopefully save some lives but we all know it’s just barely scraping by and we should be passing $2,400/month stimulus payments.
— John Panzer (@jpanzer) December 20, 2020
“I’m so excited about the $600 stimulus checks I can’t even decide if I’m going to pay rent for the right side of my bedroom or the left!!!” Jack in New York joked.
Guys I’m so excited about the $600 stimulus checks I can’t even decide if I’m going to pay rent for the right side of my bedroom or the left!!!
— Jack (@GayLaVie) December 20, 2020
“It’s infuriating to see what every other major country around the world had done for their citizens and our elected officials give us scraps,” another user commented.
It’s infuriating to see what every other major country around the world had done for their citizens and our elected officials give us scraps. This isn’t sustainable
— JIM👎 (@jtp2106) December 21, 2020
Some also noted that many pandemic relief schemes have been plagued by fraud or delays in spending the money.
What about previous aid?
In March the US approved more than $2.4tn in economic relief, including one-off $1,200 stimulus payments, funds for businesses and money to boost weekly unemployment payments by $600.
The package was credited with cushioning the economic hit of the pandemic, which cast more than 20 million Americans out of work this spring and drove the unemployment rate up to 14.7% in April.
The US has regained about half of the jobs lost, but economists and businesses have been pushing Congress to approve further economic relief, as programmes expired and money ran out, prompting recovery to slow.
A survey by the Chamber of Commerce released on Tuesday found three quarters of small businesses said they needed government help to survive.
In the last five months, the US poverty rate has spiked, reaching 11.7% last month – an increase of 2.4 percentage points since June, according to research from the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame.
Nearly eight million more Americans are now living in poverty. This year has seen the biggest single year increase since poverty tracking began 60 years ago.
Many low-income Americans have seen their bank balances drop steadily in the months since April, when the first government stimulus cheques arrived. Without further assistance, lower-income families’ current account balances will drop faster than higher-income households, a report by the JPMorgan Chase Institute found.