During the past month, our colleagues have been sharing their analyses of the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. They’ve underscored the continued gender imbalance of labor, the racial injustice central to our economy, and the disparate impact the virus has had on different groups of our country, and they’ve provided key analysis of the CARES Act.
I lead the Roosevelt Network, which means that I spend my time training and supporting a cohort of undergraduates; the folks my team works with are emerging progressive policy leaders, organizers, and activists. Like us, their lives have been upended by the pandemic and they are dealing with the issues my colleagues have written about. But young people and students are among the many groups marginalized in the economic stimulus bill—which will leave them greatly disadvantaged in the months and years ahead.
For example, the CARES Act specifically excludes younger Americans by prohibiting anyone who could be claimed as a dependent from receiving the $1,200 support other adults are receiving. Though the demographics are changing, the average age of enrolled college students is between 18 and 24 years old; many people in this age range are still claimed as dependents for tax purposes. But the reality is that many people in this age range have jobs, pay rent, and help provide for themselves—and are prohibited from receiving money to supplement their lost wages. At the same time, the CARES Act also cuts off the $500 of support for children at the age of 17. All together, this means that young people themselves can’t receive $1,200, and their families can’t receive $500 to support their needs; they have been left behind. It’s not a small part of the population impacted by this: It’s estimated that about 21 million people—including many college students, people with disabilities, and elderly people—are impacted by this exclusion.
“Many of students in this position just feel left behind. Overlooked,” said Parker Cellura, a student at the University of Cincinnati and the Roosevelt Network’s community college organizer. “A large amount of parents of college students can’t afford to cover the expenses of sustaining their children as they continue to take classes at their university. Yet, once laid off, many have no other safety net to rely on. They’re not seen as needing government assistance directly as they are ‘dependent’ on their parents’ income, but they’re parents are not receiving the financial support to help them.”
With campuses closed and local communities’ services shut down, students have lost both their sources of income and future job prospects. “I lost my restaurant job, which made up half my income,” said Maggie King, a senior at Northeastern University and Roosevelt’s New England chapter organizer. “I am currently living off of savings and my two work study jobs (thankfully I am able to do them online and my university is continuing to pay me), but those will end at the end of the month. At this point, I am already feeling the financial pressure to get a job (grocery store maybe?) as well as the social pressure to stay home in order to keep myself and others safe. I am really frustrated that the government chose not to acknowledge students who are in this situation because I know I am in no way the worst off of my friends, much less the student population in this country.”
Many students have been forced out of their campus housing, an additional source of costs and stress that has left many with nowhere to go. Furthermore, current juniors and seniors are set to graduate—with immense debt—during an economic recession some are calling “the mother of all financial crises.” As of 2018, students graduated with an average of $35,359 in student loans. “Canceled summer internships, hiring freezes, and skyrocketing unemployment have made the job search even more difficult and have jeopardized future financial security for undergrads and new grads,” noted Snipta Mallick, a student at the University of Texas, Dallas, and the Roosevelt Network’s health care policy coordinator.
This is exacerbated by the flaws of our social insurance programs. “Unemployment insurance does not protect against the bad luck of entering the workforce during a recession as opposed to a period of growth,” wrote Roosevelt Institute education expert (and Roosevelt Network alum) Suzanne Kahn. “Unemployment benefits are not available to new job-market entrants, nor do they make up for the lifetime of lower wages for those who are able to find a job.”
What makes this situation especially disappointing is that this cohort of young people believes—more than any previous generation—that government should have an expanded role in providing goods and services for us all. Iván Cazarin, a student at the University of Illinois Chicago and Roosevelt’s new chapter coordinator for the Midwest, spoke to that reality: “In a completely unprecedented situation, it is clearer than ever that the things youths organize around—eviction stoppages, universal health care, and basic income—were never really that far-fetched. Yet time and time again, we’ve seen older generations disregard young people’s vision for government’s capacity to solve a lot of the greatest issues of our time.”
Cellura echoed that sentiment: “I find myself disappointed in a lot of progressive federal legislators, with such large swaths of citizens simply left out of being considered [for] government assistance in these times of increasing economic strain for working class people.”
Yet we believe that there is still hope. As government officials begin conversations about a fourth phase of the stimulus and beyond, they have the opportunity to correct for gaps in the existing legislation. The ability of government to do better for its next generation of citizens—in both the short and long term—is within reach. An easy first step would be to correct the dependent exclusion from stimulus money. Since the funds have yet to be paid, and the process might last until September, there’s time to add in the additional payments without large disruptions to the process already in place. This would help not only college students but all young people and dependents excluded by the current policy design.
But there is also a chance to go further in helping young people through policies like student debt cancellation or support to colleges and universities for providing tuition reimbursement and refunds for room and board costs. In doing so, Congress would need to ensure that students who received grants or scholarships wouldn’t owe money back to anyone. Expansion of health care coverage in some way—like these suggestions from Young Invincibles—would also be beneficial.
These policies would protect students’ health and economic security—both now and in the long term. Policymakers must commit to centering their needs; student organizers will press the case until they do.