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Low-Income People Must Be Eligible for Stimulus Payments — and Actually Receive Them

March 21, 2020 at 5:00 PM

Stimulus payments need to reach as many low-, moderate-, and middle-income households as possible to soften the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial blow to individuals and shore up the economy. That means that lawmakers must not only make low- and moderate-income people eligible for the full payments; they must also ensure that the government delivers the payments without imposing new requirements on individuals to file tax returns or fill out and submit other complex paperwork.

In essence, today’s lawmakers must not repeat the mistake of 2008, when the lawmakers of that day unnecessarily required people to file tax returns to get stimulus payments. By avoiding that mistake, lawmakers will ensure that millions of the nation’s most vulnerable people will, in fact, get their payment rather than lose out.

To take these issues one at a time:

First, low- and moderate-income people should be eligible for the full stimulus payment. Fortunately, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that low-income people should receive the same dollars of payment as higher-income people. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s initial stimulus payment plan would have left 70 million households with incomes below about $50,000 without the full $1,200 per adult “recovery rebate” — including roughly 9 million households with no payment at all — the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates. Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Mitt Romney quickly proposed that lower-income people receive the full $1,200. Senator Hawley also proposed to eliminate the McConnell plan’s requirement that households earn at least $2,500 to qualify for a payment. That’s essential, but it’s not all that lawmakers must do.

Second, the law should prescribe federal and state mechanisms to deliver stimulus payments automatically, so eligible people actually receive them. The IRS should be able to send stimulus payments quickly to most people who file tax returns. But some 30 million people don’t file returns, including those with incomes so low that they aren’t required to file returns for federal taxes and millions of seniors, people with disabilities, and veterans. They shouldn’t suddenly have to file a tax return or other burdensome paperwork to receive their payments, causing millions to miss out altogether or have their payments delayed by months. Government offices that could help people with paperwork are closed, families are apart from one another, and lawmakers shouldn’t make people, especially the most vulnerable, try to find help filling in forms during a pandemic.

Instead:

  • Federal agencies like the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can deliver stimulus payments automatically to millions of people with disabilities, seniors, survivors, and veterans who already directly receive federal benefits. Tens of millions of them aren’t required to file a tax return because Social Security and other benefits are their main source of income, so making them file tax returns would prove a significant barrier for many to their receiving stimulus payments. SSA and the VA, meanwhile, have up-to-date bank information on these populations to enable them to deliver stimulus payments very efficiently.
  • States can reach many of the millions of low-income people who aren’t receiving benefits (such as Social Security) from federal agencies by delivering the payments through state-administered programs such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). States have systems in place that can quickly deliver the stimulus amounts directly through such programs. The federal government would then reimburse the states for payment costs. States would use existing data matching technology to avoid duplicative payments. States and state agencies already often match against federal databases to administer federally funded programs, so this is neither new nor difficult.

    State delivery would help quickly get stimulus payments to some of the nation’s most vulnerable people, including poor families with children who don’t file tax returns because they had very low or no earnings. This group includes people who have significant health challenges but nevertheless don’t qualify for disability programs, which have quite restrictive rules. Helping such vulnerable families stay afloat — and stay housed — is critically important during a pandemic. If such families wind up on the streets or in shelters, their health will be even more at risk, and public health will not be well served.

Third, lawmakers must avoid the mistake of 2008 in imposing a tax filing requirement. We are in the midst of a health and economic crisis and lawmakers are facing serious pressure to move fast and to simply repeat what an earlier group of lawmakers did. But the delivery model for the 2008 stimulus payment — which Senator McConnell’s initial bill largely relied on — would leave millions of the most vulnerable people at risk of never actually receiving their stimulus payment.

In 2008, lawmakers required roughly 20 million seniors and veterans to file tax returns to get their stimulus payments even though they had no other need to file a return and SSA and the VA had the information to send them payments directly and avoid duplication of the payments the IRS made. That created unnecessary confusion and burdens for millions of people who filed — and, ultimately, about 17 percent of those eligible people never filed to receive their payments.

Former IRS Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson has urged lawmakers to avoid this mistake of 2008 and, instead, to use federal agencies such as SSA and the VA to quickly deliver stimulus payments to people who don’t file tax returns. We agree, and lawmakers should also ensure that the millions of people who neither file a tax return nor receive federally administered benefits actually receive stimulus payments through state governments, as explained above.

This seemingly technical issue will determine whether millions of low-income people in fact receive stimulus payments. These are the very people who struggle the most to make ends meet and, thus, are the likeliest to spend every additional dollar they receive, providing the greatest potential boost to the economy. Ensuring that they get stimulus payments is not just the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint; it’s also the essential thing to do for the U.S. economy.


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