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Cash Assistance Coming for Many Americans, but Hurdles Remain

Signed into law last week, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is the third coronavirus-related legislative package to pass Congress. Among the $2 trillion bill’s health care and economic changes is a plan to send up to $1,200 in cash assistance to millions of Americans.

In general, all U.S. residents or citizens with adjusted gross income (AGI) under $75,000 ($150,000 for couples) who are not the dependent of another taxpayer and have a work-eligible Social Security Number are eligible for the full stimulus amount ($1,200 for individuals, $2,400 for couples). They are also eligible for an additional $500 per child. The cash assistance phases out above those income levels. This calculator can help you determine how much you might receive.

Importantly, there is no minimum income level. Even individuals with $0 income are eligible for cash assistance if they meet the other requirements.

Eligibility for most will be determined by the AGI they reported on their 2019 or 2018 federal tax returns. Many Social Security and Railroad Retirement beneficiaries have incomes below the required filing threshold and do not file taxes each year. The text of the CARES Act allows the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to look to their Social Security or Railroad Retirement Benefit Statement to determine eligibility and distribute payment. However, initial IRS guidance suggested the agency might require these individuals to file a tax return anyway, effectively forcing them to jump through unnecessary and onerous administrative hoops as a condition of receiving a stimulus payment to which they have a legal right.

Low-income Social Security beneficiaries can face significant barriers to building and maintaining health and economic security in general, and during the ongoing coronavirus crisis in particular. It is imperative that the cash assistance reaches these individuals as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

Given the urgent need, Medicare Rights quickly asked the federal government to clarify its implementation plans and to ensure that cash assistance is automatically distributed to Social Security beneficiaries, as Congress intended and as the law provides. Fortunately, the IRS subsequently revised its position, stating in new guidance that the payments will be automatically advanced.

Medicare Rights welcomes this update. Such an IRS-mandated filing requirement would likely have prevented many low-income Americans from receiving needed relief. Current public health guidelines and implementing ordinances require all of us to change our routines, avoid crowds, and stay at home. Social Security beneficiaries, many of whom may lack access to the internet or reasonable accommodations, would not have been able to obtain in-person or other filing assistance that might be more readily available outside of the coronavirus emergency period.

These barriers remain a concern with respect to other low-income individuals who might still be required to file an otherwise unnecessary tax return to receive the CARES Act’s economic relief, including older adults and people with disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income as well as veterans who receive certain benefits from the Veterans Administration. As with Social Security beneficiaries, the federal government has the authority and information it needs to issue automatic payments to these individuals. We urge the administration to do so without delay, and without requiring any additional paperwork.

We recognize that operationalizing the CARES Act’s stimulus payments may present logistical difficulties for the implementing agencies and applaud efforts to send the checks fairly and efficiently. We caution against shifting these burdens onto those who can least afford to bear them. Moving forward, we will continue to urge Congress and the administration to respond to the coronavirus crisis in ways that prioritize the needs of older adults and people with disabilities, including through further financial relief and better access to care.

Read the CARES Act.

Read our letter.

Read more about what’s in the bill.

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