WASHINGTON -- More than 50 million retirees can expect to receive $250 payments from the government in the next few weeks as their share of the economic stimulus package enacted in February.
Economists say the payments will be a timely boost just as the recession is showing signs of easing a little.
The payments are part of the $787 billion package of spending and tax cuts enacted in February to help boost the economy. They will go to people who receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, railroad retirement or veteran's disability benefits.
Mary Glenn-Croft, deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, told a congressional panel Tuesday that the payments are intended to inject more than $13 billion into the economy while helping beneficiaries of the four programs meet everyday living expenses.
The payments are meant for people who did not qualify for the new "Making Work Pay" tax credit that provides up to $400 to individuals and $800 to couples. Taxpayers who would otherwise qualify for both will have the $250 payments deducted from their tax credits.
The tax credits started flowing to most workers in weekly paychecks this month. The $250 payments will be delivered in May, Glenn-Croft said.
The effect on the economy should be known in the next few months, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
"We are at the moment of truth for the tax cuts and probably the stimulus more broadly," Zandi said. "If we don't see an improvement in retailing and if the job cutting doesn't abate in response this summer and fall ... it either hasn't worked or it wasn't enough."
The U.S. economy has shed more than 5 million jobs since the recession began, and unemployment remains high in most of the country, but there are signs that investors, shoppers and home buyers are less jittery.
Zandi said the economy is still in decline. But, he added, "The rate of decline is slowing; the free fall is over."
The goal of the stimulus package is to get people to spend money at a time when most are reducing spending and saving more. It makes sense to be frugal when the economy is in such bad shape, but it hurts the economy when everyone does it.
The extra Social Security payments should boost spending because retirees on fixed incomes are more likely to spend them than workers earning more money, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.
"The people who live closer to paycheck-to-paycheck are more likely to spend it," Swonk said.
The payments are also expected to provide relief to many struggling seniors. Glenn-Croft said the bad economy -- coupled with aging baby boomers nearing retirement age -- has more Americans applying for Social Security and disability benefits.
The agency expects retirement claims to increase by 300,000, or 9 percent, this year, Glenn-Croft said. The agency expects disability claims to increase by 30,000, or 12 percent, she said.
Swonk said some aging baby boomers are being forced into early retirement through layoffs and they are using Social Security benefits as an "alternative form of unemployment insurance."
"You're 62, you're eligible, you just lost your job," Swonk said. "It's better to get something than nothing."