The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion stimulus bill, will provide direct financial assistance to Americans in the form of relief checks. But most college students, and other vulnerable groups, will not be eligible.

Individuals who reported an annual income of less than $75,000 in their last tax filings will receive a one-time check of $1,200 with an additional $500 for any child dependents. Anyone older than 17 claimed as a dependent and any undocumented immigrant without federal work permits will not receive a check.

“Many state and local governments and nonprofit groups are attempting to help where they can, but these are gaps in the federal response that need to be addressed in subsequent legislation,” said UC Santa Cruz politics professor Eva Bertram in an email. “And it’s not right – from a public health, economic, or moral standpoint – to exclude anyone from these protections.” 

Working Students Fall Through the Cracks

There are about 21 million adult dependents not eligible for relief checks, according to the Tax Policy Center, including high school students, college students, disabled adults and the elderly. 

College students in particular are often in financially precarious situations, many working part-time, or even full-time, on top of their studies. And according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the majority of college students are now financially independent, meaning they financially support themselves, or others, with limited financial resources. 

“College students like myself might be living paycheck to paycheck,” said UCSC second-year Tatiana Madriaga. “And now we’re like, ‘I don’t really know what to do anymore.’” 

Despite being financially independent, Madriaga is still classified as a dependent on her parents’ tax returns, so she is one of the millions of adult dependents not eligible for a relief check.

With campuses and cities shut down, many college students have lost their jobs or had their hours significantly reduced, leaving them struggling to make ends meet.

“I’ve had to work a lot of hours for minimum wage just to be able to afford rent every month. I was working two jobs this year. […] And I lost both of those jobs,” Madriaga said. “And it’s kind of scary.”

Other Important Information for California College Students

  • Federal work-study may continue to be paid as long as university continues to pay other faculty and staff.
  • Depending on their income, California workers can file for unemployment insurance if working part-time or reduced hours to receive partial benefits.
  • Since undocumented workers in California are not eligible for unemployment insurance, the non-profit advocacy group Legal Aid at Work compiled a list of relief funds that support unemployed undocumented workers.
  • The CARES Act included support for student loan holders by creating a tax benefit for employers who help pay off student loans and by pausing federal loan payments and interest on federal loans through September 30, 2020.

The CARES Act expanded unemployment insurance by providing individuals up to $600 per week to be added to state-provided unemployment benefits through July 31. However, there is a threshold to qualify for unemployment insurance. For instance, California workers must earn $1,300 in their highest paid quarter to qualify. According to the Brookings Institution, this threshold will likely disqualify part-time and low-wage workers like students.

Without support from the federal government, some college students are hoping to get more support from their universities. Many UCSC on-campus resources are closed or limited, including OPERS, the McHenry and Science and Engineering Libraries and the textbook lending library.

“Not everyone can afford to get an expensive textbook, especially when they’re put in a situation where they have to choose between rent, groceries or school payment,” said UCSC second-year Tania Pimentel. “UCSC should just take that into consideration more because we’re students, and most of the time they just treat us like customers.” 

Others Left Out of CARES Act

Undocumented immigrants, adults with disabilities and individuals who don’t file taxes will likely be ineligible to receive relief checks under the CARES Act as well. 

The Pew Research Center estimates there are about 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., with almost 2 million residing in California. The day after the CARES Act passed, more than 135 organizations signed a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California legislature calling for unemployment support for undocumented immigrants. At time of press, there have been no changes to California unemployment insurance to support undocumented workers.

Family members who support an adult with a disability will not receive the additional $500 dependent check, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“There’s no clear policy rationale for this choice, which ignores the struggle of many families with dependents who are not minor children,” the report states. “And the added cost to rectify it would be quite modest.”

The CARES Act relief checks are dependent on 2019 or 2018 tax returns, leaving out individuals with very low income or who receive a majority of their income through untaxed sources. Houseless individuals, the elderly who rely on Social Security and veterans relying on benefits are less likely to automatically receive relief checks. 

Released earlier this week, TurboTax partnered with the IRS to create a free stimulus registration tool. This tool allows people who are not required to file taxes to determine their eligibility for a relief check and to update their information with the IRS to receive a check as soon as possible.

Next Government Steps Must Fill Gaps

The CARES Act marked the third phase of the federal government’s economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first two phases offered funding for health agencies, small business loan subsidies and increased unemployment benefits. 

“The measures that Congress just passed […] are not traditional stimulus measures; those will come later, said UCSC politics professor Eva Bertram in an email. “That means giving individuals and businesses the resources they need to get by while essentially putting much of the economy on hold.”

While the first three phases were geared toward stabilizing the U.S. economy, upcoming legislation could provide economic stimulation. Congress is starting to release plans for a phase four economic stimulus package, mostly focused on infrastructure funding, to be voted on in late April. 

Timeline of Federal COVID-19 Economic Response

  • Phase 1: Signed by President Trump on March 3, provided $8.3 billion for health agencies, testing and small-business loan subsidies.
  • Phase 2: Signed March 18 and worth about $100 billion, gives tax credits to employers offering paid sick leave and increases to unemployment benefits and food assistance.
  • Phase 3: President Trump signed the CARES Act on March 27, allocating $2 trillion to direct relief checks, bailouts for airlines and other distressed industries and loans and grants for small businesses.

Bertram said next-phase legislation could be used to support vulnerable individuals by providing free COVID-19 treatment regardless of insurance or funding programs like nutritional and housing assistance.

Experts from across academic fields agree the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting effect on the world, so next-phase legislation will have to address the longevity of the pandemic’s impact on the U.S. economy and on individuals.

“We need to recognize that this is not going to be a short-term undertaking – not just a month or two,” Bertram said. “The federal government may need to provide repeated infusions of direct assistance to individuals, families, and businesses. The need will be dictated by the length of time it takes to control the virus, and at this point that’s not predictable.”