The stimulus plan Congress approved this month may provide less of a jolt to the U.S. economy than intended, as most Americans plan to save rather than spend their tax rebates, a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times survey shows.
Only 18 percent of respondents said they will spend their rebate on purchases, while slightly more than three in 10 said they prefer to use the money to pay off debt, and a third said they'll pocket it.
"People in Washington assume that about 40 percent of the money will be spent," said Douglas Elmendorf, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization. "Much less would be disappointing."
Respondents are increasingly gloomy about the economy's course. A majority said the U.S. is already in a recession and that President Bush hasn't done enough to tackle the home-mortgage crisis.
"It's time to circle the wagons and pay down debt," said Chris Danvers, 50, of Sacramento, Calif. He said he's noticed that business is slowing in the upscale steakhouse where he works as a waiter, so he will pay off the debt he recently incurred buying a refrigerator and a couch.
Bush and congressional leaders agreed on a $168 billion stimulus plan that has as its centerpiece tax rebates for most households. Taxpayers are expected to start receiving checks in May, ranging from $300 to more than $1,200 for some families.
About $36 billion in rebates were sent out as part of a stimulus package during the 2001 recession, and consumers spent roughly 40 percent of the money. That provided a boost to economic growth in the second half of that year and helped end the slump. The results may be different this time.
"We've got enough stuff," said Deane Bogardus, 60, a former college-admissions director in Hollywood, S.C., who plans to save his windfall. "We could easily blow it on something, but we're semi-retired so we don't need that much."
Plans to spend the rebate were consistent across income groups: About two in 10 respondents in households with less than $40,000 annual income as well as those making more than $100,000 said they'll spend the money. A plurality of respondents in the lower-income group said they'll pay off debt, while saving the money was the most popular plan among the wealthier group.
"The more they spend, the more economic growth we're going to have later this year," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based research group.
Consumers' lack of confidence in the economy may be affecting their spending plans. About seven in 10 of those surveyed said the economy is doing badly, the highest percentage in more than a decade. Almost four in 10 said the economy is doing very badly, up from 31 percent who felt that way in a January poll. Thirty-six percent of white respondents called the economy very bad and a majority of blacks 55 percent agreed.
Those surveyed were almost as pessimistic about the general direction of the nation, saying by a margin of 63 percent to 26 percent that the U.S. is seriously on the wrong track.
The Feb. 21-25 poll of 1,408 adults nationwide had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
About six in 10 respondents said the nation is already suffering from a recession, versus 32 percent who disagreed. Forty-five percent said there is currently a moderate or mild recession, and 16 percent said it is serious.
"For me it's not a recession, it's a depression, because I just lost my job," said Gail Pool, an unemployed accountant in Richland, Wash. Pool, 62, said several of her relatives and friends have also been laid off.
Pool, like most other Americans, doesn't see relief in the short term. Six months from now, the economy will be in about the same condition it's in now, half the survey participants said, while almost three in 10 said it will be worse. Just 18 percent said things will improve by then.
By a margin of 44 percent to 33 percent, Americans said the Democratic Party would do a better job than the Republicans at restarting economic growth. Among self-described independent voters, the margin was 37 percent to 28 percent.
Survey respondents were split on the need for a second stimulus package with additional unemployment insurance benefits and infrastructure spending that congressional Democrats have called for.
A majority 57 percent said Bush hasn't taken sufficient steps to aid the housing industry and help holders of subprime mortgages, a growing number of whom face foreclosure because of rising monthly payments. Among households with annual incomes below $40,000, almost seven in 10 said the president hasn't done enough.