Signed into law on March 27, 2020, the CARES Act was exceptional both in size (over $2 trillion in allocated funds) and in the speed at which it was legislated and implemented. A major component was a one-time transfer to all qualifying adults of up to $1200, with $500 per additional child. How effective were these transfers in stimulating the consumption of recipients?
Using a large-scale survey of US households, the authors document that only 15% of recipients of this transfer say that they spent (or planned to spend) most of their transfer payment, with the large majority of respondents saying instead that they either mostly saved it (33%) or used it to pay down debt (52%). When asked to provide a quantitative breakdown of how they used their checks, US households report having spent approximately 40% of their checks on average, with about 30% of the average check saved and the remaining 30% used to pay down debt. Little of the spending went to hard-hit industries selling large durable goods (cars, appliances, etc.). Instead, most of the spending went to food, beauty, and other non-durable consumer products that had already seen large spikes in spending because of hoarding.
These average responses mask significant differences across households. For example, lower-income households were significantly more likely to spend their stimulus checks, as were households facing liquidity constraints. Individuals out of the labor force were also more likely to spend their checks than either employed or unemployed individuals, consistent with motives of consumption smoothing and hand-to-mouth behavior.
Other groups that were more likely to report spending most of their checks were those living in larger households, men, Hispanics and those with lower education. In contrast, African-Americans were much more likely to report using their checks primarily to pay off debt, as were older individuals, those with mortgages, unemployed workers and those reporting to have lost earnings due to COVID. For those who did not wish to spend their stimulus payment and had to decide whether to pay off debt or save their checks, higher-income individuals were more likely to save than pay off debts, those with mortgages or renters were much more likely to pay off debts, as were financially constrained individuals.
Finally, and importantly, 90% of employed workers who received a stimulus check reported that the transfer had no effect on their work effort (as opposed to, e.g., searching harder for new work) while 80% of those employed workers who did not qualify for a check reported that receiving such a check would not affect their work effort; the same holds for people out of the labor force. For unemployed workers, approximately 20% of those receiving a payment said that this made them search harder for a job, while two-thirds report that it had no effect.
These results suggest that additional payments to households during the height of the pandemic—either in the form of stimulus checks or additional UI benefits—are unlikely to negatively affect the recovery because of disincentives to work.