When 26-year-old Naomi Biden and 23-year-old Peter Neal, a couple quarantining together during the coronavirus pandemic, found out that the CARES Act passed through the Senate, they were amazed. The act includes direct payments and access to increased unemployment benefits for individuals, increased 401k loan limits, small business relief, and more, and both law students were hopeful that the $2.2 trillion stimulus package meant to help people and businesses through the economic shutdown would provide relief to their families, friends, and fellow Americans.
“The range of programs, the amount of different sources of funding that were made available for people is pretty phenomenal,” Neal, who just finished his first year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told MTV News. “It's incredible,” Biden, who is just about to graduate Columbia Law School and is the granddaughter of former Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden, added.
Neal’s parents run a small business in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the pandemic, which has resulted in many states closing all inessential businesses, was having a “serious impact” on their lives. Eventually, the Neals began to worry they weren't going to be able to meet payroll.
“That came as a big shock to me,” their son told MTV News. “When Naomi and I talked to [my parents], we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there's this massive stimulus still happening and there's so much money the government is trying to get out there, I wonder if there's something in there that they'd qualify for.’”
Neal and Biden, who are currently completing their law school courses at home due to coronavirus social distancing measures, set out to read all 335 pages of the CARES Act to see if there was anything that would help. But getting through the act was difficult, and they soon realized that if they were struggling, other people likely were, too.
“There had to be a better way for the programs and the eligibility to be communicated with people,” Neal said. So the couple decided to use their research to create an easily accessible tool that would tell anyone just how much federal help they might receive as a result of the CARES Act.
“It was either that or watch Curb Your Enthusiasm for the third time in a row,” Biden added with a laugh. They spent a total of almost 48 hours straight to read through legislation, creating a quiz, and coding a website; they took only three hours to sleep each night. “Even though it was basically the exact same [as the law school work] we were procrastinating doing, it was a different and new and fun experience because it would actually be helping people,” Biden told MTV News.
The tool, which is accessible at My CARES Act Benefits, is designed more intuitively than the Internal Revenue Service’s broad FAQ site. Biden and Neal not only programmed the calculator to tell users how much money they’ll receive, they included a question to identify qualified professionals who might be able to provide peers with pro bono legal advice. Though they issue a disclaimer at the bottom of the page that the site’s information is generalized, they hope it provides some guidance to those seeking to unravel congressional jargon.
They also know they were able to create the tool in large part because they had the resources and time — which most people, like Neal’s parents, do not. “[We have] the comfort to jump into it and not be totally scared off by this text,” Neal said, which prepared them to pick apart the legislation in a unique way. “Nobody who is in a really tough situation facing a lot of other stresses brought on by [the coronavirus], let alone no legal familiarity, would in a million years be able to open this up and sit there and spend hours and hours reading through this.”
Even so, they still faced the challenges that can arise from working together, Biden joked. Neither are computer coders, which made building the website difficult. “I, for one, think there are magnets in my blood. I touch computers and they break,” Biden said. “It was a very intimidating prospect to figure out how to create a website, and how to do the quiz and code the calculator.”
But the steep learning curve paid off: The site launched just days after the CARES Act was passed, and more than 10,000 people have already used My CARES Act Benefits to determine their own eligibility. Neal and Biden also said they’re both shocked at how many people are eligible to receive funds. “It’s open to a lot more people than we expected,” Neal said. “If you're in need, there's a really good chance that you're going to be able to get that money. Really, the main exclusion is income.”
And even people who might not be in immediate monetary need might be receiving funds from this stimulus bill, which can be used to donate to mutual aid efforts in their neighborhood, or to ensure that essential businesses in their area can stay open longer. “I think there's so many people who think government aid will [only] go to the people that are less fortunate than me and there's no use in even checking,” Biden said.
“With this bill, it's really supposed to help everybody,” to some extent, she added. “If you're not in need necessarily, but you could use it to help pay your employees, or stay open a day later, nothing is not possible.”
As unemployment numbers continue to skyrocket, the added benefits outlined in the stimulus bill are wildly important; especially considering that the one-time check provided by the CARES Act, which maxes out at $1,200, likely won’t be enough to carry people through this global pandemic. Many people, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) are hoping the government will take even more steps to ensure people have what they need during this time.
In the meantime, Biden and Neal are hopeful that tools like theirs provide resources to people in need. “We're all in this together,” Biden said, whether or not you understand confusing legal jargon.