Stimulus Payment Access Has a Racial Gap —Here's How to Advocate for Your Family and Others
If the past 15 months were an epic roller-coaster ride, let's just say I weathered those stomach-turning emotional and financial inversions incredibly well. I am healthy and employed, with a roof over my head and food on the table. A solid 24 weeks of unemployment provided me traction at the start of the pandemic, and then, every stimulus payment hit my checking account within days of aid packages being passed and signed into law—wildly welcome relief for this single mom of two who has been fortunate enough to work (and school) from home despite ongoing global uncertainty.
But here's the thing: I'm white. My boyfriend, a Black single dad who claims three dependents, has yet to receive a single stimulus check; the IRS claims there was an error on his 2019 tax return, and until he rectifies that (which, considering the agency's backlog of 12 million paper returns as of December, according to this report), it could take months.
I struck up a casual conversation with my elderly dad's caregiver, who is Latinx and has also yet to receive any stimulus funds. Suffice it to say, I started scratching my head. Does the fact that these individuals are Black and Latinx factor into the equation here? Short answer: Yes. According to recent research, it turns out that, although Black and Latinx folks are two times more likely both to need and benefit from stimulus money this year, they're less likely to get it. Here's why.
"All U.S. systems are based in white supremacy culture, white middle-class norms," Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and founding director of BRIDGE—a minority- and women-run nonprofit dedicated to advancing equity and justice—explains. The reality is that few families who file their income taxes on time, have regular and reliable access to the internet, hold bank accounts, and reside at an address that has not changed in the past year (and yes, those are all white, middle-class norms) are facing barriers to receiving federal funds in a timely fashion.
And while the middle class is growing in diversity, it is still predominantly white; a Brookings Institute report showed that in 2019, the American middle class was 59 percent white, 12 percent Black, 18 percent Latinx, and 10 percent "other." Suffice it to say, the system caters to convention. A February 2021 poll conducted by CNBC reveals people of color feel the financial strain at rates far greater than white Americans.
And the numbers speak for themselves: 76 percent of white people report receiving at least one COVID-19 government relief payment, compared to only 65 percent of Black and 67 percent Latinx individuals. Meanwhile, 50 percent of Blacks and 40 percent of Latinos say they are counting on another round of stimulus payments to simply get by—both figures that double the 22 percent of whites who feel similarly.
"Through this entire COVID crisis, Black and brown people have been the first out of jobs, the first to be displaced from their homes," VanSant said, in a nod to the statistics before emphasizing an another overlooked truth: "We can't enter COVID times without thinking about where people were when it started." Black and brown people were already disadvantaged, isolated, and disconnected from the resources that they needed before March 2020—at disproportionate rates when compared with whites—which points to a salient takeaway: "The pandemic exacerbated all of those scenarios."
Eve Schatz, founder and Executive Director for the Berkshire Center for Justice, has spent almost three decades providing pro bono and sliding-scale legal assistance to those who would otherwise not be able to afford representation. Her take, especially in the wake of COVID-19 (where calls to her Massachusetts-based nonprofit have increased threefold) is this: "Those who are disenfranchised and underrepresented take the brunt of hardship across the board," she said in a statement that captures the tens of thousands of non-recipients of stimulus funds who face barriers to receiving timely payments.
"Black and Latino Americans are less likely to have access to legal representation than their white counterparts," Schatz adds, packing a one-two punch: Not only are non-white individuals disadvantaged by the system, but they are also faced with the added hurdle of how to address the injustice. A single question quickly paved the way: Is this an example of systemic racism at its core, or simply a flawed system?
"I believe there is bias in every institution in the United States," says VanSant, who has dedicated her career to effecting change through education and tough conversations that bring to light the continued lack of equity and inclusion that both permeate society and remain largely unaddressed. "Being Black means that there have been laws and policies saying what you can and cannot have; they used to be overt and now they are covert. [They] determine access based on one's skin color."
This systemic, or institutional, racism is embedded through laws within society or an organization; it can lead to discrimination across the board from employment, housing and healthcare to education, political power and the criminal justice system. It's an issue the immigrant community, in addition to Black Americans, continues to face.
"We have been seeing the pandemic through the eyes of our patients," says Natalia Deruzzio, a native of Colombia who came to the United States with a student visa 12 years ago, and has spent the past 13 months supporting thousands of immigrants—both documented and undocumented—who were especially hard hit when COVID descended.
As a client services representative for Volunteers in Medicine, Deruzzio and her colleagues saw that their Hispanic clients were going to struggle immediately as the hotels, restaurants, and tourist destinations—where many immigrants traditionally work in service-oriented jobs—were shuttered; this, at the end of a dormant winter season, meant most had no cushion to fall back on.
For a population historically blocked from access to public benefits, and/or for those without social security numbers, the issue is extremely complex. Deruzzio explains that "if, one day, you can organize your papers" to apply for legal immigration status, having a record of receiving public benefits—from SNAP benefits to fuel assistance—can be a problem. So Volunteers in Medicine applied to MassUndocuFund (a grassroots organization aimed at alleviating the financial strain of COVID for the 250,000 undocumented immigrants) and received almost $150,000 to begin making cash payments to their clients to cover the bare necessities, namely rent and food.
"The community of immigrants that I know, and that I have been part of myself, is really hard-working—we don't come here trying to look for the government to pay our bills," Deruzzio says, adding that welfare is a "totally foreign concept" in most Latin countries. Which means that not being able to work, or having hours cut in a drastic way, leaves this community especially vulnerable.
While Deruzzio has received her stimulus payments (she is a permanent resident who received her Green Card after marrying an American), she remains among the minority—both in her receipt of stimulus funds, and in her willingness to speak with me on the record. Uncovering the narratives of those non-white individuals at the mercy of a system that caters to convention turned out to be pretty tough.
Black and brown families with whom I spoke remained confused as to why the thrice-promised government funds had yet to materialize for them; most report receiving nothing but a murky message on the website: "Payment status not available."
A current announcement on the IRS site reads: "All first and second Economic Impact Payments have been sent. If you didn't get any payments or got less than the full amounts, you may qualify for the Recovery Rebate Credit and must file a 2020 tax return to claim the credit even if you don't normally file."
Within the Hispanic community—one Deruzzio underscores as wanting not to take, but to give "to enrich life in America"—few, if any, are bemoaning the fact that funds did not come through for them. Instead, most are seeking third, fourth, even fifth jobs to make ends meet, for their families here and their families abroad, which leaves little time to dwell on the ingrained inequities that abound.
"Even though there a lot of immigrants, documented and undocumented, that paid into the system, [there was no] safety next to support them during the crisis," Deruzzio said, adding, "we are all humans, we all lived through the same crisis, and it's sad that distinctions were made during the pandemic [that caused immigrant] families [to be] left out despite all the great contributions they have made to American life and culture."
Perhaps it all boils down to a fittingly rhetorical question posed by Barack Obama in his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land: "Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few?"
Are you still missing (all or part of) your stimulus funds, or know someone who is? Follow these action steps to advocate for a swift resolution.
Check your payment status.
Visit the Get My Payment tool. This tool lets you check the status of your third Economic Impact Payment. Good news: This round is being sent in phases, which means if you haven't received one yet, it doesn't mean you won't.
File a 2020 federal tax return now.
Even if you don't normally do so, file your tax return to claim the 2020 Recovery Rebate Credit. This option is for anyone who didn't get a first or second payment (all of which have been sent) or who got less than the full amount to which they were entitled. This will also position you to receive the expanded Child Tax Credit slated to be disbursed, on a monthly basis, between July and December.
Report potential identity theft.
Do you suspect your stimulus funds landed in the hands of someone else? Report the potential theft and get a personal recovery plan by visiting IdentityTheft.gov.
Contact the IRS
Verify that your info is correct and these common scenarios do not apply to you:
- The IRS does not have your current address on file
- The IRS does not have current banking/direct deposit information
- The IRS does not know you or your dependents qualify because they have no records for you
- Someone else claimed you or your children as a dependent
- You have a designated payee (or someone else who receives and helps manage your federal benefits)
LawHelp.org will give you a comprehensive list of free legal aid programs, general legal information, and forms for your specific state or territory.
Identify your state's elected officials.
Join the ACLU.
Visit the ACLU website and become an active participant in the fight to support immigrants and racial justice. Attend an event, join an organizing meeting, and learn about other grassroots events in your community aimed at protecting civil rights for all Americans.