Coronavirus stimulus checks: What you need to know

Hundreds wrote to NBC News with questions after a report about a Treasury Department proposal to send money directly to Americans.
Image: Treasury Dept
The Treasury Department has proposed sending two checks to Americans to stimulate the economy.Patrick Semansky / AP file

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By Josh Lederman

WASHINGTON — Even in the best of times, paying the bills was a monthly struggle for Susi, a 70-year-old great-grandmother in Oklahoma. These are not the best of times.

Unable to afford retirement, Susi picks up shifts as a substitute teacher, a critical source of income that vanished when the schools shuttered. So when the Trump administration floated the idea of rushing cash payments to Americans, Susi had urgent questions.

"There's no relief in sight," said Susi, whose age also puts her at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus. "I'm single and have no help with my bills, so I am anxious to find out if we really are going to receive this help, how much, when and how."

Susi, who asked that only her first name be used, was one of hundreds of Americans who wrote to NBC News with questions in the hours after a report about a Treasury Department proposal to send two stimulus checks to Americans.

The questions were dire, the stories devastating, with subject lines like "Help," "Please read" and "What about senior citizens?"

For now, there are far more questions than answers. The two-page proposal from the Treasury Department on Wednesday was just that: a proposal, little more than a list of priorities. It hasn't been passed by Congress, a necessary step before the government starts sending checks to Americans.

The Trump administration is in talks with Senate Republicans on a rescue package that will likely include some version of most of what the Treasury proposed. But the specifics are unlikely to be hammered out until next week.

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Here's what we know and don't know about the most frequent questions about help coming from the government:

When are the checks coming? How much will they be for?

The Treasury Department proposal called for payments to be issued April 6 and May 18. But again, that's just a proposal and not money that's been approved. Congress could very well change those dates if and when it passes legislation, including cash payments.

The government proposed that each tranche total $250 billion nationwide, with each person's exact amount determined by their income and family size. The Treasury Department said it is "modeling specific options" but proposed that both payments to each person be for the same amount.

Senators, who will ultimately vote on any bill, have proposed cash payments from $1,000 to $2,000 a person.

I'm on Social Security or disabled and don't make enough to pay taxes. Does that mean I won't get a check?

We don't know. And it's a fair question.

Vicki, who wrote in from Idaho, said she'd lost much of her retirement because of the stock market's coronavirus crash. Mel, who is on disability, said he "can't even go to the store to get anything." And Debra, who said she has a chronic disability, wrote in asking how she could stock up on supplies, adding, "At this point in time, I don't even have the ability to be hired anywhere."

The Treasury Department's written proposal obtained by NBC News called for "payments to individual taxpayers, to be administered by the IRS and Bureau of the Fiscal Service." That language suggests that Americans would have to be taxpayers to qualify.

But various senators' proposals have referred more generally to "Americans," and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this week that "we're looking at sending checks to Americans immediately." Because those on Social Security and disability are among the most economically vulnerable populations, it seems likely that Congress would act to ensure that they would be included in any emergency aid.

The Treasury Department and the Senate Finance Committee didn't immediately respond to inquiries about whether Americans who don't pay taxes would be eligible.

Do you have to sign up for the payments? Is there a form? How will the government know where to send the money? What if I've recently moved?

These are all important and — for now — unanswered questions. The federal government would have addresses for people who paid taxes, earned income or received government payments last year. But those could be out of date, especially for renters or people without stable residences, who are likely in most need of financial help during the crisis.

It's also unclear whether any final package would involve traditional checks mailed to Americans or whether direct deposits into bank accounts would be an option.

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Will low-income people be prioritized? What if I'm on food stamps? How can I stock up on supplies?

It depends on whether any final legislation gives an identical amount to every person or doles it out based on factors like income and family size, as the Treasury Department proposed. Mnuchin has said previously that people making $1 million a year clearly don't need checks.

One reader, Shirley, said that with a fixed income, she's been giving people rides in exchange for help keeping her electricity on. And Robin wrote in saying she's receiving food stamps and Medicaid as she fights breast cancer and asked, "Will this be given to the poorest people?"

Aside from whatever happens with cash payments, there are other ways the government is working to help those on public assistance programs and those most in financial need.

Already, Congress has passed coronavirus legislation beefing up funding for public health programs, food stamps and school lunches. That legislation also bolsters unemployment insurance and ensures paid family and sick leave for employees of small businesses.

What if I currently owe the government money in taxes? Will that count against me?

Unlikely. Even if the final package includes payments only for "taxpayers," it's likely that would include those who owe taxes even if they haven't yet been paid. That's because the tax collection system is primarily based on prepayments of taxes deducted from workers' paychecks, with workers then paying any remaining amount owed or getting a refund when they file their taxes the next year.

And the government has made it clear that it's working to give people leniency in paying owed taxes as another way to get cash into Americans' hands during the crisis. This week the Treasury Department announced that anyone owing taxes for 2019 will have an extra three months — until July 15 — to pay without penalty or interest in what amounts to an interest-free loan from the federal government.

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.