It’s been nearly 17 months since President Obama signed into law the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the economic stimulus package. But with the economic recovery still lagging and unemployment at nearly 10 percent, what exactly has the money been doing? Well, just in case we have forgotten what that money has been up to, the Obama administration has announced “Recovery Summer,” a push to highlight infrastructure projects all over the country, including more than 10,000 construction projects.
But while it might be hard to pinpoint exactly what effect each dollar of the stimulus package is having on the larger economy, we can dial in on the miles of highway to be worked on this summer (30,000), homes to be weatherized (80,000), and of course the number of jobs supposedly created or saved with the funds, thanks to recovery.gov, the U.S. government’s official site to track recovery spending. While the website feels like any standard-issue Obama-esque Web 2.0 creation, its development was actually mandated as part of the legislation, which required that a website be created “to foster greater accountability and transparency in the use of funds made available in this Act.” Recovery.gov went live on February 17, 2009, the day President Obama signed the act into law and has been tracking money ever since.
The site, which is officially administered by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RATB) — another invention of the act — gives taxpayers (and others) the ability to track recovery funds using a wide variety of tools, including interactive maps, downloadable spreadsheets and even a MySpace page (with a whopping 59 friends!). Although the RATB and recovery.gov don’t actually allocate any of the stimulus money themselves, they track its distribution and spending on two different levels. In addition to tracking all money that the 28 federal agencies receive as part of the bill, the RATB mandates that all recipients report quarterly on the total amount of funds received from which agency, a description of the project being funded and the number of jobs funded. This process is designed to increase accountability and transparency and is “unprecedented in the breadth and depth” of information afforded to the public, according to the Office of Management and Budget. And it is this process that makes recovery.gov positively teeming with information.
The level of recipient reporting has not quite matched the amount distributed. $115 billion in federal contracts, grants and loans have been distributed through June 11, but only $62 billion have been reported as received by March 30. However, the numbers have been getting closer together. There has been a marked improvement in the reporting, according to Edward Pound, spokesperson for the RATB. In addition, recovery.gov has set up a continuing correction process to allow recipients to revise reports that have already been filed.
But where recipient reporting has been robust, there is also a glut of information available on projects. In Illinois, the Chicago Transportation Authority has received a $191 million dollar grant from the Department of Transportation for a variety of uses, including repairing train tracks and reconstructing rail stations. On recovery.gov one can see exactly how much of that money has been spent, received and, most importantly, funneled into job creation (243). Plus, the job stats are broken down even further, detailing that the grant has funded exactly 11.65 iron workers. Contracts associated with each grant are also detailed: For example, more than $4 million was distributed to Pb Americas, Inc. for construction management services. And in case this project didn’t have enough detail associated with it, one only has to check the recovery.gov flickr pool for a picture showing the work in action. The flickr pool is also a great place to see those wonderful signs detailing construction efforts currently being funded by the stimulus package, which in many cases includes the retro-flavored recovery.gov logo.
The recipient reporting system and the amount of data required in reporting have given federal auditors a wealth of information when looking for signs of abuse. In addition, there is also a bright red button on the website for the public to report fraud, waste and abuse. But despite fears about abuse in distributing hundreds of billions of dollars quickly to stimulate the economy, prosecuted cases of abuse have been minimal. According to the most recent quarterly report, there have been only 43 cases accepted for prosecution and 147 active investigations resulting from 1,771 complaints.
Before too much blame or credit is assigned to the stimulus package, it should be noted that only about $400 billion of the original $787 billion has been paid out so far. And only $115 billion of the $275 billion allocated for contracts, grants and loans has been distributed. But the President’s Council of Economic Advisers estimates that the stimulus act raised the GDP by somewhere between 2.5 and 2.9 percent, and raised employment by between 2.2 and 2.8 million, relative to what they would have been, through the first quarter of 2010. And as the administration hopes to show this summer, many projects that were not “shovel ready” when the stimulus act was passed are now just getting underway.
But while the estimates of GDP numbers and large scale employment creation may be imprecise, a couple of clicks on recovery.gov can show that exactly 2.73 jobs have been created with a $462,530 grant to the American Samoa Government. Not to mention forest fighters being put back to work with stimulus funds.