Stimulus jobs, funds unevenly distributed

WASHINGTON — In February 2009, the United States had fallen into what many economists called the deepest economic slowdown since the Great Depression. The housing bubble had burst, unemployment was nearing its highest level in almost three decades and the once-freewheeling banking sector had turned tightfisted.

At the urging of President Obama, Congress passed a $787 billion economic stimulus bill on Feb. 10, 2009, to get federal dollars flowing into the U.S. economy.

Eighteen months later, the administration estimates that about 85 percent of the jobs it expected to create or save in the first two years have indeed been created or saved. The economy is rebounding slowly, and the worst effects of the recession have softened. Unemployment, while still high, is better than it otherwise would have been.

For the most part, mainstream economists such as those at the Congressional Budget Office agree with those conclusions, but an examination by McClatchy and the Medill News Service has found that some parts of the country have benefited far more from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act than others have, that some sectors of the economy are benefiting far more than others are and that it's difficult to detail exactly where all the money has gone.

Among the findings:

* The jobless rates in the states had little to do with where major portions of the stimulus package were distributed. Some states with the lowest unemployment rates received some of the highest per-capita spending for stimulus projects.

* Job creation on the local level has been uneven. By the White House's numbers, for example, Nebraska created 74 percent of the expected jobs, while North Dakota and Massachusetts created 100 percent.

* The Obama administration won't be able to fulfill its vow to track every stimulus dollar. The mechanism that's used to account for the expenditures is complicated, flawed and at times inaccurate.

"I know it's political rhetoric to say we have to know where every penny is spent," said Raymond Yee, a lecturer at the University of California Berkeley's School of Information. "But it's difficult to even understand where every billion dollars is spent."

* Much of the stimulus money has yet to go out the door. As of July, $127 billion in contracts, grants and loans had been awarded, but that's less than half the $275 billion allocated for those projects.

That's partly by design and partly because it was difficult to get systems in place to spend money quickly for the array of new programs that the stimulus bill funded.

As it sought to sell the nation on the necessity of a major stimulus package, the White House released 50 information sheets in February 2009 that described how the stimulus would be a boon to every state.

Jobs a selling point

The first selling point in each sheet? Jobs. Whether it was the projected 396,000 jobs created or saved in California or the 8,000 in Vermont, job creation and retention got top billing.

The White House projected creating or saving about 3.5 million jobs in the first two years after the stimulus bill passed. In a July report, the administration estimated that it's created or saved approximately 3 million of them, about 85 percent of the expected total.

(Using different economic models, the administration calculates the added-jobs tally at either 2.5 million or 3.6 million and averages them out to 3.1 million.)

While they agree that the stimulus package has created jobs, other economists are less optimistic than the White House is. The CBO says the job boost could be as low as 1.4 million or as high as 3.4 million. Three other economic organizations — all of which the White House cited in its July report — put the jobs tally at 1.8 million, 2.1 million or 2.2 million.