When the first round of pandemic relief payments went out last spring, Debbi Harris felt like her son, Josh, was forgotten by lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
As the coronavirus pandemic tore through the country, the Harris family went to great lengths to protect the health of their youngest son, now 28, who has complex medical needs. But while Debbi and her husband Victor got relief payments last year, Debbi noticed Josh, as a dependent, was not included.
"We are so used to being just isolated and hidden and this way — with Josh not being part of the stimulus and being helped through the stimulus like other Americans — it was just another confirmation that he didn't count, that nobody was seeing him," said Debbi Harris, 63, of Eagan.
Josh has cerebral palsy, along with physical and developmental disabilities. He was born prematurely, his mother said, and had a brain hemorrhage at birth.
Two federal aid packages passed by Congress last year included relief payments covering dependents 16 and younger.
But that definition left out a large group of dependents that included 17- and 18-year-olds, many college students and older children with disabilities, like Josh, who are on their parents' tax returns.
"It didn't make any sense to me that he'd be like this invisible group of people that just were ignored," Debbi Harris said. "And, of course, it's one of the most vulnerable groups as well who really needed to be part of that stimulus."
Two Minnesota Democrats, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, pushed to change that in Congress last year, though their efforts did not become law.
Then the widened dependent group was included in last month's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Some Republicans also looked to include more dependents after the first relief package, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, whose proposal would have meant "an additional $500 provided for each dependent regardless of age" for families who qualified, according to a news release in July from the Senate Finance Committee. No Republicans voted for last month's stimulus package.
Smith said there didn't appear to be a clear reason for excluding those dependents earlier. She says adding them will "make a big difference to families in Minnesota and all around the country."
Craig said in an interview she was ashamed that lawmakers "left someone like Josh" out of last year's legislation.
"This is just something that I saw as just so wrong, and I've sort of been the thorn in the side of my own caucus for the last year, and I'm just really, really happy we got that corrected in the American Rescue Plan," said Craig, who has publicly highlighted the Harris family's situation.
And that means the Harris family and many others can now get as much as $1,400 for each of their dependents, depending on income levels. It's fulfilling for the family to get stimulus money tied to their son, Debbi said, "like Josh was finally a citizen."
The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates at least 15 million dependents across the country who were excluded from the previous two relief packages now qualify for payments.
"This really can provide families more money to work with and to do something with, and so that will trickle into the economy," said Roxy Caines, the center's earned income tax credit outreach campaign director.
Expenses are constant for the Harris family. Home care nurses and the family's other two grown sons work with their parents to help Josh, who needs what his mother describes as "24-hour-awake care." The family can't downsize because their house is modified to be accessible with an elevator, ramps, ceiling lifts and a special bath tub.
Debbi describes herself as a full-time volunteer and public policy advocate whose work includes serving on the board for the ARC of the United States, a nonprofit that focuses on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Victor Harris, 72, is retired and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.
Now with the latest round of stimulus money, they are planning to do something special. Every member of the family is vaccinated now, and when it's safe to travel they'll get in the van and drive.
Josh will be able to look out the window, which Debbi says he absolutely loves.
Alexandria in central Minnesota is the destination. It will just be their bubble of people and nurses to help Josh.
Debbi said they'll take Josh fishing. They usually wouldn't take this kind of trip, she says, but the occasion calls for it "because it's been a really, really difficult year."
"He deserves that," said Debbi, thinking about how the pandemic has impacted Josh. "Just surviving this, he deserves that."
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559