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Many Low-Income Families Left Out of Federal Stimulus Benefits

photo - Mother with Her Children

As part of the federal response to COVID-19, the IRS has started issuing stimulus checks—to boost consumer confidence—directly to millions of families. For the record number of Californians who have lost jobs, hours, and certainty around their incomes, these payments could come just in time.

We estimate that about 81% of Californians live in a family that will receive an “economic impact payment,” with the typical family receiving around $2,200. In total, Californians could receive about $26 billion through the program.

However, nearly 20% of families are unlikely to receive a stimulus check. Because the payments phase out as incomes rise, most of these families are above the income cutoff ($99,000 for single tax filers and $198,000 for joint filers without children). But nearly a third are among the state’s lowest income families. In part, this reflects the fact that only people who have filed taxes recently, or who receive either supplemental security income (SSI) or social security, will receive a check.

People with very low incomes are not required to file taxes, and they will not receive stimulus checks unless they actively share their banking details with the IRS. Partly for this reason, our estimates indicate that just 65% of people in families with the lowest 10% of incomes—less than about $22,000 a year for a family of four—are likely to receive a check.

By comparison, 90% to 97% of those in middle-income families—with annual incomes of $52,000 to $176,000—are likely to receive a check.

figure - Middle-Income Families Are Most Likely To Receive a Federal Stimulus Check

Yet even if all Californians who do not file taxes submit their information to the IRS, people in low-income families will still receive checks at lower rates than middle-income families. Because many low-income families include undocumented residents, the entire family is ineligible for these federal payments. If families with undocumented members were eligible, all families from the 11th to 80th percentiles of the income distribution could potentially receive a check.

To help Californians during this crisis, the state’s safety net will need to reach those most affected economically. The temporary expansion of unemployment insurance will provide much more aid to certain low-income families than the federal stimulus payments. And California’s recently announced Disaster Relief Fund, which will use public and private funds to provide up to $1,000 per household to families of some undocumented immigrants, will help to fill in certain gaps. But while replacing wages is important, a response focused only on wages would skip many people in need.

Food assistance programs like CalFresh and school meals are also critical safety net supports because of their wide reach, and expansions are also underway. Along with the federal stimulus payments, these are important steps, but—depending on the length and the depth of the crisis—more remains to be done.

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