Commentary: Stiffed by the Senate stimulus: The surprising group left out of the coronavirus rescue bill
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Commentary: Stiffed by the Senate stimulus: The surprising group left out of the coronavirus rescue bill

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The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by the Senate Wednesday night provides enormous loans to airlines and other businesses as well as rebates of $1,200 to most low- and middle-income U.S. adults. But the legislation bars an important group from receiving rebates: elderly and disabled adults who are financially dependent on family members. The result is that the largest aid package in U.S. history - intended to afford relief from the consequences of COVID-19 - gives nothing at all to millions of people in the population segment most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

Throughout the debate over the bailout bill, senators offered no explanation for this striking omission. The cost of extending rebates to elderly and disabled dependents would have been well less than 1% of the package's total price tag. But even while they allowed up to $50 billion for airlines and a $17 billion set-aside reportedly written for Boeing, senators refused to provide a dime in direct aid to elderly and disabled individuals who rely financially on family members.

There is, to be sure, much to praise in the package. The bill boosts benefits for workers who are on sick leave or have lost their jobs. It offers additional support to hospitals and ensures free COVID-19 tests for Americans who have private health insurance - provided that they find a way to get the test. And it will give rebates of $1,200 for most U.S. adults with income below $75,000 (or double that for most married couples). But another 12 million Americans - including approximately 4 million seniors who are financially reliant on their grown-up children, and other disabled adults who depend for support on relatives - will receive nothing.

Some of these elderly and disabled adults recently relocated from assisted living facilities to family members' homes out of fear of contracting COVID-19. Some will face additional out-of-pocket medical costs if and when they become ill. Many are losing access to a variety of services due to social distancing measures and are becoming increasingly reliant on relatives for care. And for the families in which these individuals live, the presence of an additional dependent means an additional mouth to feed at a time when income streams are drying up.

The provision that excludes elderly and disabled dependents from aid is tucked away on page 146 of the 880-page bill. It stipulates - through a chain of cross-references - that adults will be ineligible for any rebate if they could be considered the "dependent" of another taxpayer. The term "dependent" includes an individual who earns less than $4,300 per year in non-Social Security income and who relies on a relative for more than half of his or her financial support. (An adult who lives with and financially relies upon a non-family member also will qualify as a "dependent" if his or her own non-Social Security income falls below the $4,300 threshold.)

The exclusion of elderly and disabled dependents from the COVID-19 relief package was initially so surprising that it seemed like it might have been a scrivener's error. The relevant language is copied from other parts of the code where the explicit exclusion of dependents is necessary to prevent taxpayers from claiming a double-benefit. But no such rationale applies here; adult dependents aren't eligible for rebates themselves, and their family members can't claim rebates on their behalf. And over the past several days, as the same language reappeared in successive drafts, it became increasingly apparent that the exclusion was not a drafting mistake.

Elderly and disabled individuals aren't the only ones who receive short shrift in the Senate package. For children who are 16 and under, the rebate is reduced from $1,200 to $500. For most 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds, the bill gives zero dollars to the teen and zero dollars to the teen's parents on his or her behalf. The package also excludes some full-time college students between the ages of 19 and 24.

But the total exclusion of elderly and disabled dependents is uniquely objectionable. The bill is titled "the CARES Act" - CARES being an acronym for "Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security" - but senators have shown little care for those who now need our help the most.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Daniel Hemel is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

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