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Bob Kustra's Idaho Statesman Column
Tue March 13, 2012
"Money Well Spent?" By Michael Grabell
When Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, it became the largest economic recovery plan in U.S. history. Since then, the package known as “the stimulus” has been criticized for funding questionable projects and for massive inefficiencies, and praised for creating jobs and funding real improvements.
Investigative reporter Michael Grabell tackles the complex questions surrounding the stimulus in “Money Well Spent? The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History.” Grabell pulls back the curtain on the stimulus, which tops a trillion dollars when extensions and inflation adjustments are factored in, and provides an insightful analysis of this landmark legislation and its impact on the U.S. economy.
To research his book, Grabell traveled to 15 states to visit stimulus projects, interviewed hundreds of people and pored over tens of thousands of pages of government documents and project reports. His goals were, in his words, “to follow the money and to focus on the ground level, on the construction workers, teachers and solar engineers who received jobs from the stimulus, on the auto workers who didn’t, and on the families who lost their homes and struggled when help didn’t come.”
What emerges is a picture of a stimulus package that achieved real results but at the same time did not bring about the strong, sustainable recovery that was its foremost goal. Grabell attributes at least part of the Recovery Act’s shortcomings to how and where the money was distributed. Congress tried to make the stimulus a cure-all by funding a broad range of programs, some of which didn’t have the staff or infrastructure to receive and spend the money quickly and effectively. More than half of the stimulus package was in tax cuts and safety net programs that were invisible. Many of the communities hit hardest by the Great Recession missed out on stimulus projects because of government funding formulas that sent the money elsewhere, often to areas with lower unemployment rates.
At the same time, the Recovery Act is estimated to have created and saved 2 million to 3 million jobs; without it, the unemployment rate would have reached 12 percent and lingered in the double digits until 2012, Grabell writes. When the stimulus money is finally spent, more than 41,000 miles of roads will be paved, widened and improved; 600,000 low-income homes weatherized and made more energy-efficient; and more than 3,000 rural schools connected to high-speed Internet, according to the book.
The question mark at the end of the book’s title is well placed, as Grabell, a reporter for the independent, nonprofit ProPublica, lays out the still-unfolding story of how the stimulus affected people, communities and the U.S. economy. As the merits of the Recovery Act continue to be the subject of debate, “Money Well Spent?” provides a thoughtful analysis of where the money went and who benefited.