In the rapidly changing landscape of life in the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty is a daily companion. For those able to maintain steady income and good health during this troubling time, the crisis may be more of an inconvenience. But for those whose livelihoods, and very lives, have been shattered by this disaster, it is literally a matter of survival.
The recent passage of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which directs $2.2 trillion towards the coronavirus crisis, is a ray of hope in an otherwise desperate time.
As the entire world reels from the pandemic’s devastation, those who struggle at the bottom of the economic ladder have been hit first and hardest. Here’s a look at some of the ways the relief package may affect financially fragile families in our community.
The most widely publicized component of the Act is direct assistance to households. Stimulus checks of $1200 for adults earning up to $75,000 adjusted gross income ($150,000 for married couples) and $500 for children age 16 and under within those households are expected to be issued within three weeks. Those earning between $75,000 and $99,00 will receive reduced amounts.
Because the stimulus checks are basically a tax rebate, those who are invisible to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be left out. These include people who are very low income, homeless, move frequently, don’t have a bank account, and don’t have a valid social security number.
Here’s who won’t get a stimulus check:
- Children ages 16 and 17 (based on the tax code definition of a child)
- Adults who can be claimed as dependents (including many college students and some disabled adults)
- Nonresident aliens (immigrants without a green card)
- People who haven’t filed 2018 or 2019 tax returns
Many low income families may not get a check because they have no federal tax liability and therefore do not routinely file taxes. Unless they file a tax return by July 15th (the new extended tax filing deadline), they will not receive the assistance. An exception has been made for those on Social Security who are not required to file tax returns. Information from their SSA records will be used in order to issue the checks.
Also, the Act stipulates that if anyone in the family doesn’t have a valid social security number, no one in the family will receive a check (with the exception of military families). It’s estimated that this provision will prevent more than 300,000 adults and children in North Carolina from receiving assistance.
Another component of the CARES Act which will benefit many families in our community is the boost it gives existing state unemployment insurance. North Carolina’s unemployment insurance program is notoriously frugal, so the additional funding provided by the CARES Act will be especially beneficial to workers in our state.
Some of the most oppressive requirements for receiving unemployment have been eased. Applicants are no longer required to:
- Wait a week before benefits begin
- Be able and available to work
- Actively search for at least 5 jobs per week
- Have a traditional employment history (independent contractors, self-employed workers, and anyone who has lost work or wages is potentially eligible)
The federal government will fully fund an additional $600 per week for each unemployment recipient through the end of July. If the worker is still unemployed on July 31, benefits can be extended through the end of this year.
The Act includes a moratorium on evictions from public housing or housing with Federally backed mortgages. North Carolina’s Chief Justice has expanded these protections in our state by ordering that courts remain closed through June 1.
In addition, the Act includes $900 million in additional funding to assist low income families with utility bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). North Carolina will receive $50.9 million. The details of how these funds will be distributed to the counties are still being determined.
The Act includes the following provisions aimed at addressing food insecurity during COVID-19:
- $15.1 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), plus a waiver of any time limits for the duration of the crisis
- $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs
- $450 million for emergency food assistance through community food banks
Given that this is first and foremost a health crisis, it’s appropriate that some of the funding is also directed towards individuals’ health:
- Increased federal funding for Medicaid, including $900 million for North Carolina
- Mandatory paid sick leave from April 1 through December 31. For companies that employ less than 500 people, workers are entitled to up to 80 hours of paid leave for their own illness or if they are required to care for a child whose school or day care is closed due to COVID-19. The first 10 days of such leave can be unpaid, however.