Stimulus Checks: 2020 Compared to 2009 and 2008
Since 2008, the federal government has sent economic stimulus payments to many or most Americans four times. Most recently, in March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) included cash payments of $1,400 per person, though fewer people got them than did from the prior stimulus package in December 2020, because the income threshold was lowered.
2021 and 2020 Stimulus Checks
The ARPA was a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that included $1,400 checks for adults and their dependents that people started receiving in mid-March. Single filers with adjusted gross income (AGI) of more than $80,000, heads of household with AGI of more than $120,000, and married, jointly filing couples with AGI of more than $160,000 would not receive checks.
The payments would be lowered in increments for single filers earning $75,000-$80,000, heads of household earning $112,500-$120,000, and joint filers earning $150,000-$160,000. People in those categories earning less than $75,000, $112,500, and $150,000, respectively, would receive the full $1,400.
A supplemental appropriations bill signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020, resulted in $600 checks being sent to individuals—or $1,200 for joint filers—as well $600 for each dependent child. The money went to everyone who had received money because of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in March 2020. The Internal Revenue Service began making the payments on Dec. 29, 2020.
In March 2020, Congress included stimulus checks in the CARES Act. This $2 trillion aid package aimed to help those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The CARES Act called for a $1,200 check to be sent to eligible individual adults earning up to $75,000 and a $2,400 check to be sent to couples earning up to $150,000. A person filing as head of household could earn up to $112,000 and still receive the $1,200 check. The income level was based on 2019 adjusted gross income (or 2018 AGI if you hadn't filed your 2019 tax return). Eligible families could apply for an additional $500 for each dependent child.
People with higher incomes received smaller rebates—$50 less for every $1,000 they made over the limits. Payments phased out completely at $99,000 for single filers without children and $198,000 for couples without children.
The first automatic payments went to people who filed a tax return for 2019 or 2018, beginning the week of April 13, 2020. People who were receiving Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, or Railroad Retirement Board benefits received their automatic payments shortly after.
2009 and 2008 Stimulus Checks
On Feb. 17, 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law. It called for sending out $250 stimulus checks to beneficiaries of government retirement or disability payments, for a total of $14.2 billion. The one-time payment went out to recipients of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, Railroad Retirement Board benefits, and veterans disability or pension benefits in May 2009.
Instead of stimulus checks, most taxpayers received a reduction in their federal income tax withholding called the Making Work Pay Credit. Workers' total withholdings for the 2009 and 2010 tax years were reduced by 6.2% of their earnings, for a maximum tax cut of $400 for single filers or $800 for couples filing jointly. The tax cut was reduced or eliminated for individuals making more than $75,000 and couples making more than $150,000.
The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 resulted in stimulus checks totaling about $120 billion being sent to taxpayers starting in May 2008. It rebated taxes on the first $6,000 of income for individuals or the first $12,000 of income for couples. Individual taxpayers received up to $600, and married couples filing jointly received up to $1,200. Households with children received $300 per dependent child.
Rebates were reduced or eliminated for those with higher incomes, starting at $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples. Those with incomes higher than $95,000 for individuals or $190,000 for couples did not receive a check.
Around 20 million retirees on Social Security and disabled veterans also received checks for $300 if they earned at least $3,000 in benefits in 2007. Couples in those categories received $600.
None of the stimulus payments from 2008 to 2021 was a loan that needed to be repaid.
Which Worked Better?
The ARRA's $14.2 billion in checks was less than the $120 billion in stimulus checks distributed by the Bush tax rebate. But ARRA disbursed the checks between May and October 2009. That's two months faster than the Bush checks, which went out between May and December 2008.
In addition to the checks, the ARRA tax rebates put more money in working people's hands starting in June 2009. The hope was that the increased size in paychecks would help turn the recession around. Unfortunately, many people didn't realize they had received a tax cut because they didn't get a check in the mail. As a result, much of the money wasn't spent and added back into the economy.
Self-employed individuals, small businesses, and others who made estimated tax payments didn't get their tax cuts until April 2010. By the time they received them, the recession was over. If they had gotten them sooner, businesses may have been able to hire more workers.