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Stimulus Report Card: Grade N/A

So the first tranche of quarterly data tracking where federal stimulus dollars are going and how they are being used is out and the answer is… well, it’s pretty hard to say.

Here are the straight numbers: Roughly, 5,200 federal contractors received around 9,100 contracts worth about $16 billion that created or saved a little over 30,000 jobs. But what do those really mean?

Sure, it’s an admirable presentation, with the official website heralding all sorts of new maps and tables listing places, names, projects, and job counts. And if meaningful, the numbers are underwhelming, to say the least, given that the count of 30,000 jobs created or saved falls far below earlier estimates from the Council of Economic Advisors that the stimulus package had saved or created one million jobs by this time.  

But unfortunately, the numbers aren’t very meaningful. Rather than reflecting definitively on recovery progress, they are fragmentary and unsatisfying--and the problem has a great deal to do with recovery reporting.

First, the data made available today represents only a portion of the stimulus funds released to various recipients. It includes only contracts issued by federal agencies to private companies for such work as construction on military bases or in national parks, renovating federal building, or cleaning up nuclear waste sites. To date, the data excludes stimulus-funded loans and grants to state and local government, who then issue their own contracts. A more comprehensive reporting from recipients of stimulus grants and loans is expected by the end of month.

Second, today’s stimulus jobs count only includes jobs created or saved directly as a result of recovery spending. It does not incorporate any “indirect” jobs being created by the multiplier effects of stimulus dollars flowing through the economy, such as those from tax cuts and fiscal aid. 

Third, there is no guarantee of consistency in the jobs data. Numerous observers have already noted, that today’s stimulus jobs report is likely to contain discrepancies in how different funding recipients define full- and part-time employment, count jobs created by sub-contractors, and report on positions that remain to be filled.

Given all these data limitations, the information released today (while notable as a worthwhile step for accountability and transparency) is such a small snapshot of recovery landscape that it is not very useful for getting a handle on the big picture. In this sense, Vice President Biden’s chief economist Jared Bernstein is right when he says the data is so “partial” and “preliminary” that it is “too soon to draw any global conclusions.” It is that.

As to when it won’t be too soon, that’s hard to say, but a more comprehensive recovery status report due on October 30th will hopefully provide a more satisfying picture by including contracts, loans, and grants and by drawing information from state and local governments. Perhaps then, recovery-watchers will be better equipped to assign a grade to the stimulus effort so far.