“It bridged a gap,” Ms. Ray said, while she waited for slower forms of assistance, like rental aid.
Then she got cancer. To confirm the diagnosis and guide her treatment, she had to contribute $600 to the cost of a CT scan, which she did with the help of a payment in April totaling $2,800.
In addition to providing for the test, Ms. Ray said, the checks brought hope. “I really got down and depressed,” she said. “Part of the benefit of the stimulus to me was God saying, ‘I got you.’ Spiritual and emotional reassurance. It took a lot of stress off me.”
Scott Winship, who studies poverty at the American Enterprise Institute, questioned the reliability of the census data used in the University of Michigan study, noting that fewer than one in 10 of the households the government contacts answer the biweekly surveys.
He also argued that hardship would have fallen anyway, since the last round of stimulus checks coincided with tax season, which sends large sums to low-wage workers through tax credits. Between the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit, a single parent with two children can receive up to nearly $8,500 a year.
Researchers at Columbia University estimate that poverty fell sharply in March, but Zachary Parolin, a member of the Columbia team, said that about half the decline would have occurred without the pandemic relief, primarily because of the tax credits.
Noting that the stimulus checks allocated as much to households with incomes above $100,000 as they did to those below $30,000, Mr. Winship called them inefficient and a poor model for future policy. “It’s not sustainable to just give people enough cash to eliminate poverty,” he said. “And in the long run it can have negative consequences by reducing the incentives to work and marry.”
Analysts have long debated the merits of cash versus targeted assistance like food stamps or housing subsidies. Cash is easy to send and flexible to use. But targeted benefits offer more assurance that the aid is used as intended, and they attract political support from related businesses like grocers and landlords.