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Policy Fuels Inequalities: Exclusions from CARES Act Echo the 1935 Social Security Act

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted work for millions of U.S. workers, creating large-scale financial stress and precarity, with particularly devastating effects for workers of color and immigrant workers. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March 2020, provided critical financial assistance to many U.S. families, through both direct cash transfers (checks) and expanded unemployment insurance. However, by requiring a Social Security Number (SSN) to receive benefits, the CARES Act excluded millions of documented and undocumented immigrant workers, most of whom pay taxes, as well as U.S. citizens who live in mixed-status households. For instance, 4.4 million immigrants who file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and pay over $23.6 billion in total annual taxes1 are ineligible for both the stimulus check and the enhanced unemployment insurance under CARES. If even one person in the household uses an ITIN, then no one in the household is eligible for the stimulus check (unless one spouse served in the military in 2019).2,3 All told, 16.7 million people who live in mixed-status households may be excluded from relief due to this provision, including 8.2 million U.S. citizens.4 This represents a full 5% of the U.S. population being excluded from this critical economic relief.

To some, this exclusion of millions of U.S. families from the CARES Act seems cruel, to others, a necessary political compromise.

The SSN requirement blocks millions of families from receiving relief, placing them in dire economic straits, including increased debt and a heightened risk of homelessness, particularly those without savings who are currently unable to work. This is particularly concerning, as noncitizens are less likely to have health insurance5 and thus may be hesitant to seek medical care during this pandemic. The lack of financial resources may also prevent ill or exposed workers from staying home, as they must continue working to earn a living. This naturally places all workers in certain fields to greater risks of contracting the virus – and the personal and economic fallout that comes with it.6 This policy decision to exclude millions of people from economic relief may not only prolong the pandemic but also will have lasting ripple effects for families who have been thrown into crisis and poverty due to the pandemic and who will be paying off the resulting debts for years to come. This will fuel growing inequalities in our society by race, class, and immigration status.

To some, this exclusion of millions of U.S. families from the CARES Act seems cruel, to others, a necessary political compromise. To me, it is yet another in a long line of examples of U.S. social policy creating and reinforcing inequalities in society. For instance, the 1935 Social Security Act (SSA) was the cornerstone of the federal government’s efforts to alleviate families’ suffering caused by the Great Depression and shore up their ability to face future challenges. The SSA created a number of foundational federal social programs, including old-age benefits for workers and their families (commonly called “Social Security”), unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and aid to poor children and elders. However, despite being lauded as a universal program, the SSA excluded agricultural and domestic workers from old-age benefits and unemployment insurance. Although race-neutral in its language, this provision excluded  65% of all African Americans in the U.S. and up to 80% of African Americans in the South.7 Sixty-six percent of workers of “other” races (including Latinx, Asian, and Native workers) were excluded as well.8 This provision was in place until the 1950s, but its ripple effects are still felt today, when large swaths of domestic and agricultural workers remain uncovered by Social Security due to minimum earnings requirements.9,10 Still, in response to community advocacy, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other programs created by the SSA have been reformed to become critical resources for many workers of color today.11

In order to prevent the continued, rapid growth of this injustice and inequality, community members, advocates, and allies must stand up

While the racial motivations of the SSA architects have been debated,8 the resulting exclusion of workers and families of color is undeniable. Similarly, we cannot know for sure what motivations underlay the decision to require SSNs for the CARES Act. But the frequent, blatant anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration may tell its own story. Regardless of intent, one lesson from both CARES and the Social Security Act is that today’s racial, gender, and immigration-based inequalities did not just “naturally” emerge from an otherwise fair and equal system. They were created and/or exacerbated by public policies over decades. In order to prevent the continued, rapid growth of this injustice and inequality, community members, advocates, and allies must stand up and make their voices heard to demand more inclusive policies. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ways in which our wellbeing as individuals and as a society depend upon the wellbeing of every single member of that social fabric. Only by providing protection and relief to all members of our society will we be able to reach a point of shared wellness and move toward recovery.

By Rebecca Loya, IASP Senior Research Associate

  1. Internal Revenue Service. (2015). Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs): IRS processes create barriers to filing and paying for taxpayers who cannot obtain Social Security Numbers. National Taxpayer Advocate 2015 Annual Report to Congress, Volume 1. Washington, D.C.: IRS:196-212.
  2. Narea N. (2020). The missing piece in the coronavirus stimulus bill: Relief for immigrants. Vox.
  3. National Immigration Law Center. (2020). Understanding the Impact of Key Provisions of COVID-19 Relief Bills on Immigrant Communities. Washington, D.C.: National Immigration Law Center.
  4. Mathema S. (2017). State-by-State Estimates of the Family Members of Unauthorized Immigrants. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress.
  5. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2020). Health Coverage of Immigrants. San Francisco, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
  6. Dorning M., Skerritt J. (2020). Every single worker has Covid at one U.S. farm on eve of harvest. Bloomberg.
  7. Katznelson I. (2005). When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
  8. DeWitt L. (2010). The decision to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from the 1935 Social Security Act. Social Security Bulletin;70(4).
  9. Nelson W. J., Jr. (1985). Employment covered under the Social Security program 1935-1984. Social Security Bulletin;48(4):33-39.
  10. Social Security Administration. (2019). Annual Statistical Supplement, 2019.
  11. Kijakazi K., Smith K., Runes C. (2019). African American Economic Security and the Role of Social Security. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.