Those Stimulus Checks Seem To Be Stimulating

New Yorkers reflect on a new safety net from Uncle Sam

Britney Dixon, 21, used hers to pay tuition for her master’s degree at Queens College. Patrick Haggerty, 27, paid his rent and splurged on a Hulu + Live TV subscription. Joe Sherman, 75, gave his all away to support a former student of his who had been hit by a car. 

Over the last year, most New Yorkers received two stimulus checks — in April 2020, for $1,200, and in January 2021, for $600. Each installment arrived in a different version of New York: the first, in a city grappling with an unknown enemy; the second, nine months later, to a city somewhat accustomed to pandemic life, eagerly awaiting vaccines. 

Now comes the third, arriving to a city economically clobbered but daring to hope, thanks to an increasing flow of vaccines. President Biden signed this third stimulus package—called the American Rescue Plan—into law on March 11. So, this month, most New Yorkers will begin to receive  $1,400 checks from the Biden administration, More for families with children. And the checks are welcome. “I never would’ve suspected that the government would give out checks to individuals” said Dixon. “It’s technically kind of free money.”

To paint a quick picture of how the stimulus money is shaping spending behavior, NY City Lens spoke with some New Yorkers about how they spent their first and second stimulus checks, and what a third check would mean for them.

“The stimmy would definitely come in handy when it comes to my finances for school,” said Dixon, who lives in Laurelton, Queens. In addition to tuition, Dixon spent her first stimulus check on “vanity stuff”—to pay her phone bill, get her nails done, and do a bit of shopping. 

That’s good to hear, according to Kimberly Amadeo, president of World Money Watch and an expert on the U.S. economy. Dixon, Amadeo says, helped fulfill the purpose of stimulus checks by spending part of hers at a local businesses. 

Ideally, “we probably would want to stimulate the areas that got hit the hardest,” said Amadeo, when asked if there was a “right” way to spend one’s stimulus check. She named the restaurant, entertainment, and travel industries as prime examples. “But you can’t really help them until the pandemic is over,” she said.

Patrick Haggerty, 27, on a hike during his trip to the West Coast, paid for by his second stimulus check. Photo courtesy of Patrick Haggerty.

Patrick Haggerty, 27, on a hike during his trip to the West Coast, paid for by his second stimulus check. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Haggerty.)

Still, for his part, Haggerty, a stand-up comedian from Staten Island, did indeed help the travel industry with his second stimulus check: He visited a friend in Utah, made a trip to Denver, and performed on the West Coast. He’s excited about the prospect of another $1,400 coming his way, and he will travel again, touring New York State this spring. “It’ll be nice to have some seed money to go do that with,” Haggerty said. “This next one is a big one,” he said.

Amadeo explained that the stimulus checks given out by both the Trump and Biden administrations over the past year are different from other stimulus efforts the government has performed in the past, mainly because they are so much bigger. She calls the frequency and size of the stimulus packages an anomaly. The CARES Act— signed by President Trump a year, in March 2020 — was two trillion dollars. The December 2020 stimulus bill was 900 billion. And now Biden has signed a 1.9 trillion dollar package into law. “So now you’re talking five trillion dollars that’s been spent in a year,” said Amadeo. Earlier stimulus packages—passed by former Presidents Bush and Obama in 2001 and 2008 respectively—were smaller than these three.

Amadeo categorizes the stimulus checks themselves as part of a political gesture. “What we really needed to do,” she said, “is to do something to stop the pandemic. But those steps weren’t taken. So, that tipped us into a recession.” Thus, she said, the checks were an action step “that people would notice.”

Sherman noticed. He is a retired high school music teacher living in Pelham Bay, and says he has never seen anything like the stimulus checks in his lifetime, though he wishes the U.S. government would have sent out more in the past, and hopes Congress makes a habit out of sending more. “It’s the kind of thing that I would’ve wanted to see, said Sherman, “as part of the dismantling of corporate capitalism.” 

Amadeo thinks that the third stimulus check will be the last. “I think that this is it,” she said. Going forward, she doesn’t predict the economy will need stimulating. “Now that they’re vaccinating so many people, the pandemic is actually going to start to get better.” 

The level of economic damage from the pandemic varies widely from person to person, of course, but many New Yorkers have been affected, and many more have felt the uncertainty of the moment. So for them, the financial safety net provided by the stimulus checks has been comforting. 

Dixon called the checks a heavy lift off her shoulders. “There were days when I was like ‘Damn, my money is running low,’” she said. 

Haggerty, too, is grateful. “I paid my bills a little bit more easily,” thanks to the checks, he said. “I need even more, if the government asks.” 

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