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After Months of Drought, Stimulus Obligations Bounce Back

After three months of shrinking obligations, the stimulus pipeline is beginning to fill up again. The latest numbers from show that stimulus money “in process”—funds committed to specific projects, but not yet spent—has started to tick upward again. ProPublica reported two weeks ago that the amount of money in process had peaked at $172 billion in October, only to fall consistently through the rest of the year.

But that trend has now reversed, at least for the moment. After dipping below $150 billion in last week’s numbers, the amount of stimulus money in process has now risen to $157 billion. That seems to be the result of federal agencies' obligating more of their stimulus appropriations to specific projects: in the latest numbers, the amount of stimulus money that agencies have yet to obligate has fallen to $251 billion, from $267 billion last week. (You can see that information and more on our handy Stimulus Progress Bar.)

Why does the rate of obligation matter? While it’s tempting to focus on how much stimulus money has actually been spent by the federal government (the current number is $172 billion, plus at least $93 billion in estimated tax cuts), obligations represent future projects, which is what contractors bid on—and, hopefully, hire workers for. And as federal agencies obligate more of their stimulus dollars, it means those dollars are one step closer to entering the economy.

With more than $400 billion in stimulus money still unspent, that means the Obama administration may still have time to turn around public perception of the stimulus program, which, according to a poll from CNN, isn’t very good. Three-quarters of respondents thought that at least half the money in the stimulus had been wasted; more than one in five said nearly all of it had been wasted.

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