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How A New Coronavirus Relief Bill Will Help Americans In The Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Congress is about to spend almost a trillion dollars to help people and businesses hurt by the pandemic. The coronavirus relief bill is stuffed with provisions designed to keep the economy from stalling. And like any big spending bill, it also has some controversial provisions that benefit people and companies that may not actually need the help. Well, to help us sort all this out, NPR's Jim Zarroli is here.

Hi, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Millions of people lost work in the pandemic and many are still suffering financially. So how does this bill help them?

ZARROLI: Well, it actually helps them in a number of ways. It's extending unemployment benefits. There is help for renters. Then you remember the big relief bill that was passed last spring? It gave most people $1,200 checks if they made less than $75,000 a year. This time, they're getting $600. That's for each of - $600 for you, for your spouse and for each of your kids.

Now, you might be thinking, why should people get checks if they're working? Why shouldn't these payments be targeted to the people who need it most? The supporters of the bill say this will get a lot of money flowing out there really fast. People will spend it. So it's good for businesses, it's good for the economy. Here's Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on CNBC this morning.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN: People are going to see this money the beginning of next week. So it's very fast. It's money that gets recirculated in the economy. So people go out and spend this money, and that helps small business and that helps getting more people back to work.

SHAPIRO: OK, Jim. So that's how people will benefit from the bill. What about businesses?

ZARROLI: Well, for businesses, there's more money for the paycheck protection program. That gives forgivable loans to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. It's widely credited with keeping a lot of businesses open after the pandemic hit. There are also - there have been quite a few cases of fraud in the program.

There also are some provisions that have raised eyebrows in the bill. There's something that is being called the three-martini lunch deduction. Companies are going to be able to deduct the cost of business meals. President Trump says this is good for restaurants, which, of course, have been decimated this year. Although, you know, as long as the coronavirus is out there, a tax deduction is probably not going to be enough to get a lot of people into restaurants again.

SHAPIRO: I take it that deduction applies whether or not people have three martinis at the meal (laughter).

ZARROLI: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Congress waited so long to pass this bill. It's the very end of the session. Why the holdup?

ZARROLI: There's a lot of disagreement about the size of the bill. Republicans wanted to spend less. The Democrats said, no, we need more. A lot of economists agreed with that. I spoke today with Mohamed El-Erian, who is chief economic adviser at Allianz. He thinks the bill falls short.

MOHAMED EL-ERIAN: While it's really hard to say that $900 billion is small, it is small. It is small both in terms of the immediate needs, and in terms of the longer-term needs.

ZARROLI: He says - El-Erian says when you've got an economic crisis like this, when you need a relief bill with more heft. And he says the fact that this bill doesn't have that means the economy's going to take longer to recover. People will be out of work, especially young people. We're already seeing evidence that that growth is slowing. He worries it's going to get worse. He also sees a - says a big flaw in the bill is it doesn't provide money for state and local governments. Some of them have seen their tax revenues plummet, and they're desperate for help.

SHAPIRO: Can the next Congress address this in the new year?

ZARROLI: Yes. And that is what Treasury Secretary Mnuchin says. He says this is not the last relief bill. Congress can take up issues like state and local government aid later. And if the economy keeps slowing, it can always come back and dole out more money. The problem is the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is a big opponent of more spending. And if the Republicans win those two Georgia Senate seats next month and Republicans keep control of the Senate, it's going to restrict what kinds of bills can get passed.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

Thanks, Jim.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.