COVID Relief Payments Draw an Unfair Line Between Deserving and Undeserving Family Dependency

12/22/2020 12:00am

The COVID Relief legislation passed by Congress last night includes a one-time $600 per person payment, but prohibits several groups from receiving it, including 17 and 18 year olds claimed as dependents (typically on their parents’ tax returns), students age 19–23 claimed as dependents, and adults of any age with disabilities who are claimed as dependents. As the table below shows, there were about 17.5 million tax dependents in these excluded categories in 2019. 

Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, a conservative estimate of poverty that takes certain in-kind benefits, like SNAP and taxes into account, some 2 million excluded dependents lived in families with income below the poverty line. (The People’s Policy Project has produced similar estimates, including by disposable income quintile, although they don’t include the excluded 17-year-olds). 

Table: Number and Percentage of Persons Claimed as Dependents for Tax Purposes, by Age in 2019

Age 17

Age 18

Age 19-23

Age 25 and Older

Total: Age 17 and Older

All Income Levels







As a Percentage of All Persons in Age Group






Family Income Below Poverty (SPM)







As a Percentage of All Persons with Family Income Below Poverty by Age Group 






Source: CEPR calculations using IPUMS-CPS. 

These same groups were also excluded from the $1,200 per adult/$500 per child payment in the CARES Act. The rationale for these exclusions is unclear. Shortly after passage of the CARES Act, a spokesperson for the Senate Finance Committee Republicans explained the exclusion by saying that “[d]ependents, by definition, aren’t responsible for a majority of their financial support,” and that, “[t]he goal of the recovery rebates is to provide support for Americans who are responsible for their own financial well-being or that of another during this pandemic.” 

This same logic would imply that spouses without their own earnings, who also “aren’t responsible for a majority of their financial support”, should also be excluded from the payments. In 2019, there were some 18.8 million spouses under age 65 who didn’t work at all during the year. In short, there are more spouses who are dependent on other family members than there are other “dependents.” Yet, none of the spouses are excluded from the $600 payment, while all of the other dependents age 17 and up are excluded.  

In a classic article published in 1994, A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State, Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon argued that “dependency … is an ideological term.” In earlier periods, dependency had encompassed both a “‘good,’ household dependency, predicated of children and wives” and a “‘bad’ (or at least dubious) charity dependency….” When it comes to the COVID relief payments, this logic has been refined — spouses and most children remain on the “good” side of household dependency, but  older teens, post-secondary students, and disabled adults who depend on family shift to the “bad” side.

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