The latest stimulus package only makes student’s financial situation worse

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President Donald Trump signed the long-awaited, second COVID-19 stimulus bill into law on Dec. 27. The bill passed after a contentious battle in Congress, providing qualifying Americans with a $600 direct payment, half of the $1,200 checks included in the CARES Act in March. 

The stimulus checks’ reduced value and slow arrival have been a focal point of the stimulus negotiations, though they comprise only a portion of the mammoth bill. The omnibus includes tax deductions for corporate “three-martini lunches” and extends funding for abstinence-only educational programming. The bill totals nearly $2 trillion, $90 billion of which is specifically allocated for COVID-19 relief. The remaining $1 trillion will go to the litany of other provisions tacked on as bargaining chips by legislators, a tax cut traded for unemployment benefits, a loophole in exchange for PPP loans. Ultimately, legislators bartered to get something done before Congress recessed for the holidays. 

Yet the massive bill harbors a conspicuous exclusion — dependents over 17. The exclusion of college-enrolled dependents from the second stimulus bill demonstrates an overwhelming disconnect between the government and the American people facing financial hardships in the wake of the pandemic. 

Parents are allowed to claim their children as dependents on their taxes until they’re 19 years old — or 24 years old, if they attend college — in exchange for an exemption that decreases the total amount owed. But neither the dependents nor their supporting parents will receive stimulus payments for the child, unlike financially independent adults or dependent children. 

Despite being labeled a stimulus bill, the intention of this legislation is greater than jumpstarting a lagging economy. While continued vaccine roll-outs across the country signal the pandemic’s eventual end, Americans will likely be grappling with COVID-19’s direct effects — lockdowns, closures and layoffs — for several more months. The fallout of the economic devastation may mark the next few years. The country is not facing a mere economic downturn, but a pandemic resulting in a death toll roughly six times greater than the Vietnam War.

The shortcomings of the stimulus bill are myriad, though its passing is certainly preferable to the alternative. The exclusion of college-enrolled adult dependents is only one of the many issues. But as work-study jobs vanish at universities across the country and tuition rates continue to rise despite an, admittedly unavoidable, decrease in educational quality, college students find themselves in a precarious financial situation. Working is harder. Learning is harder. Student loan debt continues to rise, damaging the financial futures of many students. 

Despite rumblings to the contrary, there doesn’t seem to be any federal relief in sight. The economy as a whole will be reeling from this crisis for the next several years, just as students enter the workforce. Not allowing college enrolled adult dependents access to relief money, nor their parents to claim them as beneficiaries, is a confusing and callous decision. 

If financially supporting a college student is burdensome enough to warrant a tax deduction, shouldn’t it also warrant an additional stimulus payment to the household, just as any other dependent would? Contrarily, if students are financially independent enough that parents aren’t owed a check for supporting them, aren’t the students themselves owed compensation? 

As usual, this issue will be particularly pernicious for low-income students and their families. Students on federal work-study are having a hard time finding work on campus as so many facilities move online. This once reliable, mandated stream of income has vanished. College enrollment rates for low-income students decreased by a staggering 29.2{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} this year as well. Without any institutional support for low-income students and their families, college is even less accessible. In the wake of a national reckoning with racial inequality, further stratifying the university system into an enclave for only those whose parents can pay without assistance and cover their child’s bills without question is a troubling development that will mark the futures of millions of students. 

“It would have a real impact on low-income students and their families. And I think the political calculus is that, giving money to minors is popular and can be seen as pro-family, and there is less of a political cost or penalty by not giving benefits to young adults,” said Christopher Faricy, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. 

An unfortunate reality of this conversation is that a $600 check still might not do much good for families struggling to keep their students in college. It could make a substantial dent in books or groceries, but tuition is rising at both public and private institutions across the country. 

Several factors imposed a clear timeline on the legislation. It needed to pass before the new year. 

“A lot of the benefits from the CARES Act, especially unemployment, some of the PPP, had either run out or (were) about to expire. And … there is a runoff election in Georgia,” Faricy said.

With the Republican party losing the presidency, the party will likely focus on debts and deficits, Faricy said. Providing $2,000 stimulus checks would make criticizing President-elect Joe Biden’s administration for spending packages difficult, Faricy said.

But if stimulus payments are upgraded to $2,000 with the Senate turning blue, the conversation will be different. 

“If Democrats do gain control of all three — the House, the Senate and the presidency — you know, maybe the first thing they do is pass an addendum where they add $1,400 onto the $600 payment, or maybe simply just pass another round of stimulus for $2,000 for everyone. So this still could end up being a factor depending upon what happens in Georgia.” Faricy said. 

The Georgia Senate runoffs officially split the Senate 50/50 and gave Vice President-elect Harris the tiebreaker vote, meaning Democrats officially hold the majority in both chambers of Congress. Since earning the security of controlling both the executive and legislative branches, both the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats have pledged their intention to send out an additional $1,400 of stimulus payments. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t make up for the months Americans went without much financial help. Businesses closed, workers were laid off, families lined up outside food pantries for the first time and, most significantly, lives were lost.

There are few things that deserve a federal response quite as obviously as a pandemic — you can’t do this piecemeal, as evidenced by America’s unrivaled death count. The exclusion of college students from the stimulus bill will only compound the existing and ever-growing financial precarity of young Americans, from millennials to Gen-Z.

Sydney Gold is a sophomore political science and magazine journalism major. Her column appears bi-weekly. She can be reached at [email protected]. She can be followed on Twitter at @Sydney_Eden.

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