OKLAHOMA CITY — Many Oklahomans are counting on their federal COVID-19 stimulus checks to pay the bills and put food on the table, but advocates say some may never actually receive that relief.

Congress did not include any provisions to protect the funds from debt collectors when it recently passed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, advocates say.

Federal lawmakers have promised Oklahomans making $75,000 or less adjusted gross income on their most recently filed tax return a $1,200 check. Joint filers making $150,000 or less are eligible for $2,400. Families also will receive an additional $500 per dependent child.

“This is a huge blow to families that are looking to use these checks to secure food, housing and everyday living essentials,” said Ivetty Estepan, with legal bankruptcy nonprofit Upsolve.

“It is allowing collectors to go after stimulus checks if there is any existing outstanding medical, student loan or credit card debt,” she said. “It is discriminating against the most vulnerable in our population and ensuring the class divide gap continues to widen.”

In Oklahoma, as many as 130,000 residents have past due child support, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services said.

The federal Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 requires the U.S. Treasury to intercept those payments. The seizure also applies to the $600 a week in extra unemployment compensation the federal government guaranteed Americans who are out of work, the agency said.

Federal law requires states to distribute the funds as past-due child support, the agency said.

Joint filers, meanwhile, may see their entire stimulus payment check seized even if only one spouse owes back child support, state officials said.

It’s unconscionable that debt collectors may waylay many of the payments intended for Oklahomans, said Kris King, lead organizer of Voices Organized in Civic Engagement. The coalition of Oklahoma City metropolitan area congregations and nonprofits tackles issues facing families.

“For people that are already swimming in debt, the audacity of anyone seizing that money and risking public safety in the process is unconscionable,” she said.

The group sent a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt earlier this month asking the Republican to protect families struggling in debt by suspending the collection of medical and court-related debt. The group also wants payday lenders banned from seizing stimulus payments and a moratorium on evictions extended.

“We didn’t write it for child support collection, but we do know that’s an issue,” King said.

King said the federal funds are meant to help people sustain themselves at a time when the government is asking them to stay home. Federal officials need to make sure the money is going directly to Americans so that they can stay home.

Families already struggling with debt risk taking on more during the crisis, she said. People desperately need the federal cash infusion to stay afloat.

“Clearly people need it to be able to shelter in place and for all of us to be safe,” King said. “If you put the poorest, most vulnerable people into a situation where they have to go out now and work when they don’t have to, it just prolongs the crisis and increases the health risks for all of us.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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