This is what a ‘targeted’ stimulus check means, and how it could affect your payment – CNET

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A targeted stimulus check means some people could get $1,400 per person and others could get nothing.


Sarah Tew/CNET

While senators were embroiled in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, the House of Representatives made significant strides on settling the portion of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that contains a third stimulus check. If no further changes are made — and last-minute adjustments are always a possibility — a $1,400 stimulus payment would include a major recalculation. The result: A “targeted” third stimulus check could mean thousands of dollars for some and lead to a smaller check than before for others — or even perhaps nothing at all.

The latest House proposal (PDF) would also qualify more groups of people this time, while also changing the stimulus check formula in new ways. For example, one net effect would be to exclude more high income earners from receiving stimulus, even if their dependents would qualify for $1,400 apiece. This would be a huge departure from the first two payments.

We’ll explain how factors like your yearly income fit in, the equation’s “reduction” or “phase out” rate and other calculations that could affect your next check. For more information, here’s when a third stimulus check could arrive, four ways filing your 2020 taxes early could help and what happens if a third check comes out during tax season. This story was recently updated. 

How a ‘targeted’ stimulus check would work

The conversation around a “targeted” stimulus check seeks to send the payment to lower or middle income households, excluding upper income people from receiving any check at all, even a partial payment. 

Specifically, the next check would accomplish this by:

  • Enforcing an absolute cutoff to the upper limit for receiving a payment.
  • Changing the stimulus check formula so that dependents do not give households that exceed the income limit a partial payment, as they did before.
  • Altering the “reduction rate” (also known as a “phase out rate” to reduce the number of people receiving a partial payment.

Additional ways to hypothetically make a “targeted” check could be:

  • Establish a lower check maximum than $1,400. (Note that Biden has said he’s set on the $1,400 amount.)
  • Lower the qualifying income limit for the full stimulus check amount (from $75,000 per individual and $150,000 per married couple).


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What happens if a $1,400 stimulus check isn’t ‘targeted’

If the $1,400-per-person stimulus check followed the exact same formula as the first two payments, people considered high income would get all or part of the maximum payment, in addition to all the people Congress actively wants to supply with stimulus money. 

That all comes down to the way the mathematical equation works out. It’s complicated. In essence, you plug in the stimulus maximum ($1,200 for the first payment; $600 for the second), your adjusted gross income (AGI) and the number of dependents you have. Interestingly, adding in dependents could make it possible for people who exceeded the income limit of the first two checks to still get a partial payment. Read more about stimulus math here.

Without changing any other variables, a much higher $1,400 maximum would make it so that even single people who earn $100,000 would get a partial check. The size of that payment would otherwise balloon with dependents involved. For example, using our $1,400 stimulus calculator, single taxpayers with an AGI below $75,000 would receive the full $1,400 check. At $85,000, they could receive $1,150; at $90,000 a year, they could get $650; and if they make $102,900, the Treasury would send a stimulus check for $5.

If lawmakers want to keep the $1,400 per-person maximum but ensure that people who make, for instance, $100,000 a year don’t get the payment, the formula would have to change. It would have to become more “targeted.” 

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When it comes to divvying up stimulus check money, there’s more than one option.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Proposed: People who make more than this won’t get a check

One way to target a check is to exclude people who make over a certain sum. The new proposal would set a firm upper limit cutoff, making it impossible for single taxpayers who make more than $100,000 per year to get any money at all. The same would go for heads of household and their dependents, and married couples with or without children. 

If the proposal were to be adopted, a married couple with 10 dependents could earn $200,000 a year and never see a dime, to choose a completely extreme scenario. Changes to the formula would start here and work backward until the other parts of the equation fall into place.

In this situation, here’s what people could get:

Stimulus check proposal for income limits

Full $1,400 per person maximum (based on AGI) Not eligible (based on AGI)
Single taxpayer Less than $75,000 $100,000 or more
Head of household Less than $112,500 $150,000 or more
Married couple filing jointly Less than $150,000 $200,000 or more

Dependents of any age would count for an additional $1,400 per head, so long as the household doesn’t make above the absolute cutoff. So let’s say you’re a head of household with one dependent and you make $149,000 per year. If the new proposal is adopted, you’d receive around $1,400 more than someone who makes $150,000 year and also has one dependent. It’s a fringe case for sure, but an illustration of the proposed cutoff in action.

Proposed: Lower the payment’s ‘phase out’ or ‘reduction’ rate

Changing the stimulus check formula used for the first two checks is an additional way to mathematically limit the number of people who receive a check. For the current proposal to work, the rate at which the check would “phase out” or “reduce” between different stages of a person’s salary would have to change.

For example, with the new proposal, a single taxpayer would get the full $1,400 if their AGI is under $75,000. That means they’d be qualified to receive some amount of stimulus money if they make between $75,000 to $99,900 per year — with their total getting smaller the higher their yearly income.

Adjusting the part of the formula that controls partial payments — the “reduction” or “phase out” rate — would result in people who make more than $75,000 per year hitting the vanishing point to get a partial payment, resulting in fewer checks going out overall.

For example, let’s say that the next check were to reduce your share by 10% instead of 5% for every $100 in income you earned (this was a previous proposal). That would mean you’d get less money incrementally for every amount you make over the limit to receive the full payment. In this case, you’d get $10 less per $100 versus $5 less per $100. If you make thousands of dollars more than the upper limit, that difference could add up fast. 

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Changing any part of the formula would limit the number of people to receive a stimulus check.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Another way to limit a check: Set a lower cap for the full amount

An earlier proposal embraced by some Democrats, according to The Washington Post, would begin phasing out recipients who make $50,000 a year or more. 

Say you have a $1,400 check and people who make less than $50,000 are the only ones who’d receive the full amount. People with an AGI of more than that (up to a certain limit) would get a partial payment — which would also peter out more quickly for people with relatively higher incomes. That calculation could potentially mean a little bit of money for middle income earners, but it would still exclude the highest earners from receiving a stimulus check for any quantity.

Far fewer people would receive stimulus money with a formula that phases out starting at $50,000 than one that phases out starting at $75,000.

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Some people may have to kiss a third stimulus check goodbye.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Drop the per-person maximum to cut the check overall

Let’s say for the sake of argument that a $1,000 stimulus check were adopted instead of $1,400. (This isn’t likely to happen after Biden confirmed he’s dead set on a $1,400 maximum.) Even if no other changes were made to the formula or to the income limit, lowering the amount would automatically disqualify more people simply because of the way the math works out.

For example, the drop from the first $1,200 stimulus payment to the $600 second stimulus check immediately disqualified people who had otherwise qualified for the first stimulus check. Simply using a $600 base instead of $1,200 reduced the cutoff point for receiving a partial payment. 

Said another way, the smaller the per-person maximum, the sooner people who made more than $75,000 a year hit the limit for receiving any money.

With the first check, single taxpayers — no spouse or kids — could get some amount of stimulus money if they made less than $99,000. With the second check, that vanishing point dropped to $87,000. The only difference in that part of the equation was the maximum per-person payment. (Separately, child dependents counted for $600 in the second check instead of $500.)

As another illustration of the effects of the base payment, the first stimulus check went out to around 160 million people, and the second payment reached an estimated 147 million households, despite more groups of people qualifying for the second check. Likewise, a hypothetical $1,000 payment would reach fewer people than a $1,400 stimulus check even if that were the sole change to Biden’s proposal.

How new qualifications could factor in

In addition to supporting larger stimulus checks, Biden also wants to include two previously excluded groups: dependents of any age (not just children under 17) and all families with mixed-status citizenship. Combined, that could potentially extend stimulus funds to nearly 20 million people who previously might not have been counted toward the family total. The $600 billion GOP proposal would allot $500 to dependents of any age.

If passed, the outcome would most likely be a larger stimulus check for families that previously qualified (in the case of 17-year-olds and older adult dependents), and some mixed-status families qualifying for a new check for the first time. In all cases, families would have to meet all other eligibility requirements — like an income limit — to receive a future stimulus check.

Until negotiations begin in earnest, we’ll have to see how the stimulus bill and third stimulus check develop. For more information, here’s the current timeline for a third stimulus check and here’s what to know about stimulus check qualifications. Here’s what to do if you’re missing all or part of your stimulus check.