Some Stimulus Coverage More Stimulating Than Others

On the year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, figuring out good ways to cover the stimulus is harder than knowing that it needs to be covered. There’s a blizzard of data to sort through, confusing debates about saving jobs vs. creating new ones vs. rising unemployment, and no shortage of political posturing about what worked, what didn’t, and what to do next.

In sorting through the coverage, the better stuff goes the extra yard.

The New York Times took a smart approach with a dive into a new Mississippi program in which the salaries of some recently hired workers are initially being paid directly by the state.

The Steps program, as Mississippi calls it, focuses on private-sector jobs. There are limits as to what kinds of work can qualify — no strippers or bartenders need apply. And the program is set up to reduce the subsidy for each new worker over time: employers will be reimbursed for each new worker’s full salary for the first two months of work, and then the monthly reimbursement will be scaled back gradually until it drops to just a quarter of the salary in the sixth month. After that, the employer must pay the full salary.

The Times does a lot of on-the-ground reporting, too, from the paper-napkin factory in Hattiesburg to the Jackson office of the always colorful Gov. Haley Barbour. But there’s also a lot of national context, as some economists argue that the stubborn unemployment rate means Washington should expand on Mississippi’s backdoor-New Deal approach and spend directly on creating jobs.

The idea has gained little traction in Washington. But on a small scale, some 21 states are already taking the direct approach, using a sliver of the $5 billion in welfare money in last year’s stimulus act that can be used to pay governments and private employers to hire people.

The Wall Street Journal did its own useful assessment of the stimulus package, focusing less on what it’s done to the unemployment rate and more on what it still might do, as infrastructure spending increases and more money starts flowing to private-sector employers.

The “shovel ready” projects administration officials pointed to as a source of new jobs have taken months to get organized. Agencies have been holding competitions to decide which projects should get stimulus grants, vetting applications for grants for initiatives such as high-speed rail construction or electric-vehicle projects. In some cases, federal agencies have had to set up entirely new programs.

Many signature projects—including $20 billion for doctors to create electronic medical records, $4.5 billion for an energy Smart Grid and $7.2 billion for broadband networks—are still in their very early stages.

Bloomberg takes a less stimulating look at the occasion, and the political banter surrounding it. This one’s a classic he-said/she said:

Since the measure was passed, “more than 3 million Americans have lost their jobs, unemployment is near 10 percent and the deficit is set to hit a record $1.6 trillion,” [House Minority Leader John]Boehner said in a statement accompanying the Republican report, entitled “Where Are the Jobs?”

Obama said that even though stimulus spending isn’t popular with the nation facing such a budget shortfall, “we had a responsibility to do what was right for the U.S. economy and for the American people.”

While no government program can replace the 8.4 million jobs lost since the recession began in December of 2007, he said the legislation provided a “temporary boost” to begin a revival.

For the super-keen, however, Bloomberg does offer video of a 27-minute interview with Columbia’s own Joe Stiglitz, who argues the U.S. needs more stimulus spending aimed at job creation (and talks about Wall Street compensation and the Greek debt, too).

The Washington Post took its stimulus shot a day later than most. But the extra time didn’t pay off in deeper reporting, or, for that matter, a clearer picture of the package.

At the top, the Post declares:

The giant economic stimulus package enacted a year ago has helped stabilize the economy but has not made much of a dent in the nation’s vast unemployment.

But it strikes a discordant note a few paragraphs later.

Many economic analysts also agree with the administration’s claims that the stimulus law has created or preserved 2 million jobs and that the number will total 3.5 million by the time the spending ultimately plays out.

Hmm. Two million jobs. That sounds like a bit of a dent. The next paragraph tries to bridge the disconnect, but doesn’t solve the problem:

But the recovery has so far been too weak to plug the yawning hole in U.S. employment. The economy has shed 8.4 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, including 20,000 in January, and the unemployment rate stands at 9.7 percent. Add to that the danger that the private sector will fail to grow fast enough to keep the economic expansion going when the stimulus money fades in the second half of 2010.

Actually, that snarl of figures without more explanation adds to the confusion.

Two million jobs added or “preserved,” whatever that means, versus 8.4 million lost is not everything, but it’s definitely a decent-sized dent. And even if the paper meant the stimulus hasn’t made much of a dent in the unemployment rate, logic would dictate that absent the stimulus, the rate would be higher. That’s a dent, too.

The general idea is that whatever the stimulus has done, it hasn’t been enough. The Post could’ve been clearer. This stuff’s confusing enough.

For its part, ProPublica has its own journalist-full-employment program, throwing five reporters and an editor, plus a bunch of interactive tools, at the stimulus. A section on Investigations of Stimulus Waste, Fraud, and Abuse includes a long list of cases, some more obscure than others. Here’s the most recent, from EmpireStateNews.Net:

The New York comptroller called upon the state transportation department to terminate a Long Island bridge-painting contract because the firm doing the work has since been banned from receiving state contracts. The comptroller found that the firm was closely tied to another contractor that had violated wage rules. The state rejected another stimulus contract for the firm in August.

The site vows to keep tracking “inspector general reports, auditor investigations and news accounts about questionable contractors,” and welcomes submissions.

It’s a good reminder that, with stimulus spending still on the way, it’s a story that’s going to stick around.

For a list of the best sites, databases, and resources on federal emergency programs, check out The Audit’s “BAILOUT, STIMULUS—Your Essential Guide.”

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.