It is a misnomer to call the deal finally reached by congressional leaders Sunday a "stimulus."
It's not a stimulus. It's a rescue. Barely. And one that is too late and too little for many in our pandemic-wracked country.
But, yes, anything is better than nothing.
The $908 billion pandemic aid package — which was expected to be formally passed by midnight Monday — would provide direct payments of $600 to millions of American adults making up to $75,000 a year, as well as revive lapsed supplemental federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week for 11 weeks.
All of that is half the level of aid delivered by the $2.2 trillion stimulus law enacted in March.
The new aid package also is expected to provide support for gig workers, freelancers, small businesses, hospitals, schools and child care. And it would extend a federal moratorium on evictions through the end of January and provide $25 billion to help tenants catch up on missed rent payments. It also would further fund COVID-19 vaccine purchases and distribution.
In some local neighborhoods, car horns honked Sunday night when the deal's announcement appeared on news programs and cell phones. There was joy and relief in the honks, as far too many families with unemployed members have burned through whatever savings they had during the months of on-and-off negotiations between House Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Finally now there is at least something to ease a portion of the suffering of millions of Americans. At least something to help unemployed workers feed their families and avoid eviction. At least something to help small businesses avoid closure or bankruptcy.
The previous stimulus package was passed about nine months ago, just as the virus took hold in the United States, prompting widespread stay-at-home orders limiting movement and commerce. It has since taken all these months to negotiate this new "deal," even as the pandemic spread out of control and people burned through their savings.
The financial news site Business Insider calculated that in America's largest cities, looking at average monthly expenditures, the new $600 direct payment would carry a two-person household for less than two weeks. The previous stimulus had included payments of up to $1,200, and a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that most of those funds were used to pay off debt or put into savings.
Either way, it helped people hang on, and this relief bill will, too. With vaccinations underway, there is reason to hope that pandemic will slow and economic growth will speed up, with this new relief package creating something of a bridge from now until then.
As The New York Times wrote: "It deploys the ample resources of the federal government to prevent economic damage that could not be easily reversed, like the loss of homes and businesses."
It also includes some targeted funding (mostly repurposed or previously unspent aid) for state and local governments, including money to fight the pandemic, to feed the hungry and to keep transit systems running.
As the spring round of federal aid began to lapse during the summer and fall, many experts warned that the failure to act on a second wave of aid would cause needless pain for many American families and cause the economy to slip back into recession. Those warnings became reality as consumer spending dropped and unemployment claims rebounded.
The American poverty rate increased from 9.3 percent in June to 11.7 percent in November — the largest increase in a single year since at least 1960, the earliest year with available data. Without this new deal, worse would lie ahead. Already 12 million Americans are receiving federal unemployment benefits under pandemic programs that had been set to expire at the end of the year.
It was that end-of-the-year deadline that finally pushed the stalemated Republicans and Democrats of Congress to each give some ground and compromise.
Democrats had first proposed and held out for an aid package totaling more than $3 trillion. Republicans — the same ones who gave the wealthy and corporations a nearly $2 trillion tax break in 2017 — reverted to their disingenuous claim of fiscal conservatism and insisted the total bill for pandemic relief could not exceed $1 trillion.
The Republicans did however, drop their insistence on a provision to give employers liability protection for not keeping their employees safe from the virus.
Should the deal have been larger. Absolutely.
Should it have been reached and sealed and passed months ago — long before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came to fear the loss of GOP majority in the Senate (thanks to the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections) if no relief bill passes? Absolutely. (Georgians know it and will remember, anyway.)
But as the novel coronavirus rages, this deal — such as it is — already is a welcome dose of good news and good medicine.
Finally, Congress did something almost right.