Manchin has set up a false choice on direct payments. Biden falling for it is political malpractice

Manchin has set up a false choice on direct payments. Biden falling for it is political malpractice
Sen. Joe Manchin III image via Screengrab

Democrats are currently negotiating with themselves over something that should be a no-brainer: whether to send direct payments of $1,400 to a larger group of people or a smaller group of people based on who supposedly needs it most.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia seems to think that only individuals making $50,000 or less and families making $100,000 or less should get the payments. People at those arbitrary income levels are the ones who really "need the help the most," according to Manchin, and sending money to anyone else is just wasteful largesse in his personal estimation.

But as the Washington Post's Paul Waldman points out, the debate over who needs the direct payments "the most"—a smaller or bigger group of have-nots—is a completely false choice. No one is suggesting giving the smaller group of have-nots a bigger pot of money based on whether other have-nots also receive a payment.

Certainly, part of what President Biden and Democrats are trying to accomplish with the payments is to bring relief to families that are desperately struggling to make ends meet and, at base, stay warm and fed.

But the other goal of the checks is to jumpstart a sputtering economy that added a meager 49,000 jobs in January. In other words, the payments are intended to be two things at once: relief and stimulus.

Just because Manchin only deems a smaller group of Americans as desperate doesn't mean a larger group of Americans isn't also suffering. And what if—gulp—a group of people who weren't days away from eviction and starvation did happen to also receive payments? Given that the economy would almost certainly benefit from a sudden cash infusion, wouldn't that be a win for the country as a whole? Of course, it would be.

So there's a lot of political upside to both helping people who are truly struggling to cover the basics while also getting some disposable income into the hands of people who either: 1) may or may not be completely desperate (in truth, no calculation can accurately discern that right now anyway); or 2) are still employed but could nonetheless use the money to cover things on which they've been forced to cut back.

Waldman also notes the obvious political downside of suddenly changing the eligibility calculation after two rounds of legislative relief already used $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for families as the thresholds for getting a payment: A bunch of people who are expecting direct payments after Biden promised a big rescue package will be deeply disappointed and even dismayed when they don't get those checks.

Trimming back the direct payments to a smaller group of people based on the arbitrary objections of one Democratic senator will gain Biden nothing while hamstringing both the political and economic benefits of the direct payments. It's a loser anyway you slice it.

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