The tax-rebate checks mailed out earlier this year put nearly $100 billion into the hands of consumers. The question now is whether the rebates worked to stimulate the economy.

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WASHINGTON — The tax-rebate checks mailed out earlier this year put nearly $100 billion into the hands of consumers. The question now is whether the rebates worked to stimulate the economy.

A variety of preliminary studies have shown the rebate checks led to a quick boost in consumer spending that helped blunt some negative effects of the economic downturn. But studies also have found many consumers put a good deal of their rebate money into savings, or used it to pay off debt or to cover rising food and energy costs — none of which stimulated demand for new goods and services.

Many economists say it will take some time to assess the full effect of the government’s economic-stimulus program. But there already are naysayers who maintain the rebate program only had a modest effect and was not worth the cost.

The ongoing analysis of the stimulus package could shape a new debate about whether another federal program is warranted, with Democrats pressing for billions in aid for states and infrastructure, and Republicans opposing such plans.

Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute and an informal adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, said so far “the rebates have not been a resounding success,” but still “helped stave off a drop in real consumer spending.”

“There were some pretty serious headwinds blowing against the impact of the rebates,” he said. “The price of oil was so high in the months the checks were going out, and people used some of those checks to pay off debt and boost their savings.”

Martin Feldstein, a Harvard professor and an adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, said it was anticipated the economic stimulus package would boost consumer confidence.

“The evidence is now in, and that optimism was unwarranted,” Feldstein wrote in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

He said recent statistics show only between 10 and 20 percent of rebate dollars were spent, while the program added nearly $80 billion to the national debt.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has argued the stimulus effort helped the economy, and he said he wants to give the tax-rebate checks more time to boost growth.

The Commerce Department, however, reported recently that retail sales fell 0.1 percent in July, the weakest performance in five months. With the mass mailings of rebate checks already completed, the new data has raised concerns the economy could slow even more in the second half of the year.

The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, signed into law by President Bush in February, included two main elements: stimulus payments for working Americans and temporary tax incentives for businesses to invest and grow. The legislation called for spending a total of $168 billion.

The Treasury Department reported last month the stimulus payments so far have injected $92 billion into the U.S. economy.

A recent Goldman Sachs analysis concluded that by the end of June, consumers had spent between $22 billion and $25 billion of the rebates, and added more than 3 percentage points to the growth rate of consumer spending.

“This spending prevented what otherwise would have been a sharp setback in real consumer spending,” the report said. “We emphasize … that our estimates are necessarily tentative pending the passage of more time, as some recipients will undoubtedly spend the money with a lag.”