ARRA, Its Details, With Pros and Cons

What Did ARRA Really Do?

man spending ARRA tax cuts on yellow peppers
••• Photo: Steve Debenport/Getty Images

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a fiscal stimulus signed by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009. It ended the Great Recession in July 2009.

Congress passed the bill based on President Obama's plan to put $787 billion into the pockets of American families and small businesses. That would boost demand and instill confidence. It was a necessary follow-up to President George W. Bush's plan, the Troubled Asset Recovery Program. TARP ended the 2008 financial crisis by bailing out large banks. 

In 2012, the Congressional Budget Office reported that Congress added to ARRA spending in subsequent budgets. It raised the total cost to $831 billion. The CBO estimated that was how much was added to the budget deficit. Most of the impact occurred by 2011.

ARRA had seven components. Here are the details of each.

1. Immediate Relief for Families

ARRA stimulated demand by sending $260 billion to families. They received the funds through tax cuts, tax credits, and unemployment benefits. Most of the funds were delivered in the first two years.

  • Cut taxes by $400 for individuals and $800 for families through reduction of withholding tax. That confused many people who expected stimulus checks like the Bush tax cuts.
  • A payment of an additional $250 each to recipients of Social Security, veterans' pensions or Supplemental Security Income benefits.
  • $70 billion to extend the Alternative Minimum Tax shelter. Congress extends it each year.
  • Greater access to the child tax credit for the working poor and an expanded earned-income tax credit to families with three children.
  • A $2,500 college tuition tax credit for 2009 and 2010.
  • An $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers in 2009 only. This was later extended through April 2010.
  • A deduction of sales tax on new car purchases through 2009 only.
  • Unemployment benefits were extended for another 33 weeks.
  • A suspension of taxes on the first $2,400 of unemployment benefits through 2009. 

2. Modernize Federal Infrastructure

ARRA also created jobs by funding shovel-ready public works projects.

  • $46 billion for transportation and mass transit projects.
  • $31 billion to modernize federal buildings.
  • $6 billion in water projects.

This is the most cost-efficient way to create jobs. One billion dollars spent on public works created 19,975 jobs according to a UMass/Amherst study.

3. Increase Alternative Energy Production

This funding jump-started the alternative energy industry in America. It demonstrated that the federal government supported clean energy.

  • $17 billion in renewable energy tax cuts.
  • $5 billion to weatherize homes.

4. Expand Health Care

This component subsidized the greater health care costs that recessions create. It also began to computerize medical records. That facilitated the exchange of patient medical information, such as tests, among doctors. Computerized medical records facilitated the Affordable Care Act. Here's what ARRA spent on health care:

  • $24 billion to subsidize 65% of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act premiums for up to nine months for laid-off workers.
  • $87 billion in matching funds for two years to help states pay for the additional Medicaid needs that occur in a recession.
  • $10 billion to National Institute for Health.
  • $17 billion to modernize health information technology systems.

5. Improve Education

Here's what ARRA spent on education:

  • $54 billion for school districts and states to pay for teacher salaries and educational programs.
  • $21 billion for school facility modernization and construction.
  • $17 billion to boost Pell Grants by increasing the maximum to $5,350 in 2009 and $5,550 in 2010.
  • $13 billion for Head Start.
  • $12 billion for special education programs, including job training for those with disabilities.

Education spending is the second-best way to create jobs, according to the UMass study. One billion in federal spending creates 17,687 jobs.

6. Invest in Science Research and Technology

Funding broadband infrastructure in rural areas also helped pave the way for computerized health records needed for the ACA.

  • $10 billion to modernize science facilities and fund research jobs that investigate disease cures.
  • $4 billion to increase broadband infrastructure in rural and inner-city areas. That made their businesses more competitive.
  • $4 billion for physics and science research.

7. Help Small Businesses

Small businesses drive 70% of all new jobs. ARRA allocated $54 billion to help small businesses with tax deductions, credits, and loan guarantees. These included:

  • Increasing the deduction for machinery and equipment, including SUVs, to $240,000.
  • Allowing a special depreciation deduction for 2008.
  • Cutting capital gains taxes for small business investors who hold their stock for more than five years.
  • Tax credits for small businesses that hire long-term unemployed veterans or students.
  • Increasing the SBA loan guarantee to 90% in the 7(a) loan program.
  • Eliminate fees on 504 economic development loans.
  • In the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, an additional $64 billion in stimulus money was allocated to extend many of the ARRA programs. It added tax credits for any new hires, and increase the Small Business Administration loan limits from $3 million to $5 million. (Source:, now defunct.)

Pros and Cons of ARRA

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act had something for everybody. But it was almost too complicated. Many people were unsure whether they, in fact, received a tax break. Polls showed that many others thought their taxes had increased instead of decreased.

Small businesses complained that loan guarantees and tax deductions didn't help them. That's because the orders just weren't coming in.

Others criticized the focus on education or helping low-income families. Some said that extended unemployment benefits removed the incentive to look for work.

But the success of ARRA is in the numbers. The recession ended in July 2009, five months after Congress passed the Act. Economic growth immediately improved. It expanded 1.5% in the third quarter of 2009 after shrinking 4.4% in Q1 2009. In the first 18 months after ARRA passed, the economy added 2.4 million private sector and 1.7 million government jobs. That was after losing more than 500,000 jobs a month during the recession.

In 2009, the Council of Economic Advisers predicted that ARRA would increase employment by 7 million full-time jobs by the end of 2012. In 2015, the CBO estimated the stimulus had actually created between 2 million and 10.9 million jobs between 2009 and 2012. Most of the increase occurred by 2011.