Opinion guest column

On the coronavirus stimulus bill

How the coronavirus stimulus bill reflects the exclusion of more than just college students in the political process

Despite the U.S. often touting itself as a democracy, there is an unsettling (but unsurprising) lack of political engagement across our country. I'm not going to pretend it's the fault of the politically disengaged; the entire societal set-up — including lack of quality civics education (both local and otherwise), shocking socioeconomic inequality, widespread corporate media agenda setting, and actual voter disenfranchisement in some states — contributes to voters completely distancing themselves from closely inspecting the political process. 

Taxes go up, taxes go down, but the American taxpayer is very often disincentivized from paying too much attention to where their money goes. Hopefully for some college students who are just entering the political sphere, the coronavirus crisis and the way our (democratic and less democratic) institutions respond, including but not limited to the recent stimulus bill, serve to bring them into the fold.

There are a number of things wrong with the coronavirus stimulus bill H.R. 748 (116th Congress) that was recently signed into law — even leaving aside the sections on corporate handouts — including how the “recovery rebate” in SEC. 2201 is means tested (based on prior income), excludes undocumented people, and how for the people it does cover: $1,200 isn't much for a crisis of this scale. To anyone who even vaguely follows politics, it's obvious these flaws have a lot to do with the ideological composition of the current Congress. But to others, these alone might not bring them to care.

For college students who don't usually pay attention to goings-on in Congress, the most glaring gap in the bill is how most college students (along with several other notable groups) are largely excluded. Students with documentation that are over 16 and listed as dependents on someone else's tax return, which covers the vast majority of students at MIT, won't see either the $1,200 disbursed to every adult citizen/permanent resident nor the $500 per qualifying child under 17. 

The specifics I will outline later, but the result is that very few students will see any of the stimulus meant to aid the American people. This isn't meant to come off as a “snowflake zoomers only care about things that affect them immediately and directly,” but more as a noting of a generation-wide instance of the sort of thing that a lot of groups (which include many students already) often experience when left out of the political conversation.

For those with the privilege of not needing or maybe not even seeing the need for the stimulus, it's easy to shrug off college students being excluded as them simply losing out on the pocket money to buy kombucha and whatever else zoomers buy. But the reality of the situation is that not everyone is in the same boat; these exclusions highlight the lack of coverage of the stimulus bill (and for that matter, benefits in general) on a much larger set of people, many of whom are hard-working long-term victims of the staggering economic and political inequality of our country. 

MIT itself is home to students from both the very richest and very poorest layers of the economic strata; more than a few students will be feeling the brunt of losing out from the potential relief. The point of pointing out these holes in legislation isn't to mourn the loss of fun-money for a handful of otherwise affluent individuals; it's to draw attention to these areas where our government is falling short. People who are upset about the stimulus package are rightfully so. 

For many, these sorts of holes in legislation are nothing new. Someone could've as easily written about how the stimulus bill leaves out our undocumented neighbors, elderly dependents, or members of the working class living in high-cost-of-living areas. These people are living in our communities with the same crisis-induced financial strain and costs of living as everyone else, but the bill leaves them out despite all the careful writing pertaining to corporate bailouts in other sections. I don't buy the idea that we were simply forgotten in the legislative process, especially considering the care usually taken in legislating in favor of the corporate elite. The government, depending on its composition, often intentionally screws over big chunks of the working class. But as a student, I hope this particular exclusion draws more student eyes to what we should be demanding and expecting from our government by and for the people.

What are we supposed to do about this now? It may be too late to get any of the stimulus money, but it's not too late to get involved politically. One of the reasons, I suspect, why Congress decided to favor large corporations over college students, undocumented folks, and other people shafted by the deal is because those in power don't think we matter politically. If our dissatisfaction does nothing to affect their electoral success, then many (save for a select ideologically driven few) have no incentive to care about us. Most of us don't have the means to fund PACs or lobby directly, and all of us have varying amounts of free time.

But if possible, I'd recommend at least talking about politics and, if you can, thoughtfully voting in every partisan or nonpartisan election at all levels. If you're unable to call or write to your local, state, and national legislators, still try to talk politics with your community and peers; holding officials accountable requires being aware of and remembering what they're doing. 

Call out instances of voter suppression. Maybe spare a few dollars for your favorite small-dollar-funded politicians. Discuss. Volunteer. Organize. Our actions are limited by our circumstances and what we are able and willing to do, so it's perfectly fine if you can't do much. But if you find yourself in a spot where you can impact your surrounding politics, please do. Democratic institutions function and work for the people only when enough meaningfully participate. Otherwise, they just become feeding grounds for corruption.

Appendix (The Specifics):

H.R. 748 started out as a bill from last year about something entirely different that underwent what one of my professors would call a full body transplant: Congress completely gutted the old bill and put in the coronavirus stimulus package essentially as one big amendment. The relevant section to the $1200 rebate is SEC. 2201, which excludes, among other individuals, those allowed to be submitted as deductions under 26. U.S. Code § 151 (Allowance Of Deductions For Personal Exemptions), which includes qualifying children up to 18 and students up to 23 according to § 152 (Dependent Defined). However, the part that is supposed to include some dependents for the $500 uses the definition of qualifying child according to § 24(c) (Child Tax Credit), which is a more restrictive definition of qualifying child that falls off upon age 17. The lack of overlap in these two definitions leaves out qualifying children between ages of 17-23 and qualifying adults, including elderly dependents. As individuals between the ages of 17-23 and qualifying adults of all ages still require money to exist, you can imagine why this would be problematic.

Martin Chan is a member of the MIT Class of 2023.