No Stimulus Check, No Job; COVID Relief Leaves Out College Students

Photo: Cesar Perez, a student in Iowa City

As most Americans await the arrival of a stimulus check from the federal government, a key demographic is left wanting: college students.

In order to qualify for a cash payment as part of Congress’ $2 trillion economic relief package, an individual cannot be claimed as a dependent on a tax return.

“Usually, students under the age of 24 are dependents in the eyes of the taxing authorities if a parent pays for at least half of their expenses,” according to a New York Times explainer on stimulus checks, unemployment benefits and other features of the CARES Act.

Ryan Longenecker, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student from Bettendorf, falls into this category.

Because he is older than 16, his parents will not receive an additional $500 in stimulus money. And because he is a college student who does not work full time, he is claimed as a dependent on his parents’ tax return and therefore ineligible for the federal check coming for most Americans.

“It is frustrating,” said Longenecker, who moved back home with his parents once the university announced it was canceling in-person classes for the remainder of the semester.

“I think it got assumed that college students will just be able to be supported by their parents, but for many families — I’m lucky that my parents can support me and it’s not a problem that I’m not working — but for many families there’s not a lot of extra cash to go around, and so if college students were able to get that money that would take some of the burdens off of families.”

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Iowa College Aid data from the fall of 2019, the most recent figures available, show 126,381 students were enrolled at Iowa’s four-year universities and colleges, and 88,375 were enrolled in two-year community colleges.

Jessica Birch, 22, graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 2019.

The first few months of her life as a college graduate have been difficult. She was unable to land a job right away, a search that has become increasingly difficult as businesses large and small fight to stay alive amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Early in March, Birch said she applied for more than 30 jobs and accepted a temporary opportunity with the U.S. Census Bureau “for the short term to get me by.”

“I thought I was over my slump,” Birch said. “I applied for a job I dreamed of. Then, like many other Americans, the rug was pulled out from under me by COVID-19. I was in limbo before, but now the life I’ve been trying to build for myself is on hold indefinitely. Yes, I’m frustrated, but I know this is bigger than any of my problems.”

Birch also will not receive a stimulus check and so far has been unsuccessful in applying for unemployment benefits.

“Despite being let go last November, I didn’t apply for unemployment because I thought it was only temporary and could stretch my savings until then,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of applying back in November because I was planning to get back to work and didn’t want to take the benefits away from someone else who needed them more.”

Cesar Perez, a 25-year-old student in Iowa City, also said he was hesitant to apply for unemployment.

Perez, who worked about 20 to 30 hours per week as an aquatics supervisor on campus, was somewhat confident he would receive a stimulus check, but also was confused by the prospect of applying for it. (There is no application process to receive a stimulus check. The Internal Revenue Service will use information on-hand from 2019 or 2018 tax returns to determine where and how to send the money).

As for unemployment benefits, Perez said his father encouraged him to apply, but “for me, personally,” he said, “applying for unemployment seems really weird. There are people probably in Iowa that probably need it more than me. I’m a single college student right now. I could definitely figure out how to make money, how to keep moving.”

Longenecker and Perez said the University of Iowa had recently notified student employees that they would continue to be paid for the remainder of the semester based on the average number of hours they typically worked per week.

Perez rents a home in Iowa City with his roommates and decided to stay in town to wait out the pandemic rather than return to his parents’ home in Aurora, Illinois.

“My parents are still working but their hours are getting cut and I don’t want to give it (COVID-19) to them and then they’ll spread it around their area,” Perez said, noting his concerns about asymptomatic transmission. “That’s a big fear for me. Also there’s a little hope for me that everything will go back to normal next month in May, so that’s why I’m grounding here, too. I think that’s some hope, I guess.”

All three young people, though sensitive to Americans in worse financial and physical straights than themselves, felt “left out” by the politicians who crafted coronavirus relief legislation.

“I talked to many of my friends, especially the ones who are lower income and having to work more hours — the ones who are working 20 hours a week while at school — definitely feel like they were just completely left out of the process, and it just kind of has fostered that same idea that really a lot of politicians just don’t care about young people,” Longenecker said. “And it’s a big thing because this is affecting us during a huge time in our lives.”

“This is going to be my generation’s thing,” he said, likening the coronavirus’ economic impact to millennials entering the workforce during the 2008 recession. “The coronavirus has had a huge impact on our way of life and how we operate, and that’s going to be the thing that affects us as we go through college and enter work life and adult life.”

As a graduate, Birch no longer has the safety net of university-provided employment. And for Longenecker and Perez, the University of Iowa’s semester expires in about five weeks, and with it, their paychecks.

“Certainly, if this continues into the summer,” Longenecker said, “that will be a huge impact on my finances because I usually work full-time in the summer.”


By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 4/8/20

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