With federal stimulus funds running out, economic worries grow

Much of the $787-billion stimulus has been spent, creating jobs and extending jobless benefits. But with lawmakers reluctant to approve more funding, concerns are rising about staving off another recession.

June 30, 2010|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

With home sales sliding, employers reluctant to hire and world stock markets gyrating wildly, the U.S. economy is in danger of stalling. Now one of its only reliable sources of fuel is running out: federal stimulus spending.

Funds flowing from the $787-billion legislation passed last year have helped create hundreds of thousands of jobs and propped up social programs such as unemployment benefits. But with much of that money spent and lawmakers reluctant to approve another big round of spending, concerns are rising about what will replace it in the short term to keep the economy moving.

Jitters about a global slowdown pounded world markets Tuesday after an index forecasting Chinese economic activity was revised downward and Greek workers walked off the job to protest government budget cuts. In the U.S., the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 268 points on news from the Conference Board that consumer confidence fell in June after three straight months of gains.

Economists worry that the weak labor market will spook U.S. consumers, whose spending fuels the economy. Dwindling federal stimulus funds are only heightening those fears.

California's $85-billion share of stimulus funding has repaired bridges and highways, built new barracks on military bases and renovated crumbling infrastructure. Disabled veteran Bill Vaughn says his biggest job this year was a stimulus project repairing a pipe at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. Since that job ended in January, he hasn't found additional work for his firm, BCV Construction.

"My company's on the verge of closing," said Vaughn, who lives with his in-laws in Northridge.

In addition to infrastructure improvement, about $18 billion of California's share of stimulus funds has been spent on social programs such as Medicaid, unemployment insurance and food stamps. Billions more flowed to schools and job centers. But with those funds now gone, officials are preparing for another round of belt-tightening.

"It was unbelievable feast one year and famine the very next," said Blake Konczal, director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board, which used stimulus funds to help more than 2,000 unemployed people attend job retraining. The office's budget doubled thanks to $16.4 million in stimulus funds but will contract again in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been contentious since Congress approved it in February 2009 to aid an economy mired in a deep recession. Republicans have been particularly critical of the program and its price tag, and the final bill was billions of dollars smaller than the one President Obama had originally proposed.

But seventeen months later, those stimulus jobs, along with temporary government positions created for the 2010 census, are among the few bright spots in a dismal employment market. The nation's unemployment rate is 9.7% and companies have shown little willingness to hire. Private-sector employers added just 41,000 jobs in May, out of a total of 431,000 jobs created.

The government has few levers left to pull to produce quick growth. Interest rates are already at rock-bottom levels. Concerns about swelling U.S. deficits have many on Capitol Hill opposed to the idea of another stimulus. That has some economists worried.

"There's an uncomfortably high probability that we slip back into recession," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics. "If we slip back, there's no policy response. We won't have the resources to respond."

To be sure, there are still thousands of ongoing stimulus projects and billions of dollars to be spent. The Obama administration is calling this "Recovery Summer" and will spotlight dozens of stimulus projects in the coming weeks. But many important programs are losing funding.

Among the most crucial is unemployment insurance. Benefits vary from state to state, but the federal government has helped pay for five extensions that have boosted the duration of payments in states including California to as much as 99 weeks from the standard 26 weeks. Stimulus funds have also helped subsidize health benefits through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, which gives jobless workers an opportunity to continue their coverage at group rates for a limited time.

Efforts to extend those provisions are stalled in Congress. The National Employment Law Project estimates that 1.63 million workers will exhaust their benefits by the end of this week, and at least 140,000 workers will lose COBRA coverage.

In California, which has the nation's third-highest unemployment rate at 12.4%, the Employment Development Department estimates that 205,000 unemployed workers will not receive further benefits without congressional action. About 2 million Californians are unemployed; nearly half of them have been out of work for 27 weeks or more.

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