POLITICS

Biden Administration Takes Major, Belated Step Toward Improving Child Tax Credit Access

The new tool has already earned praise from legal aides for improving accessibility for poor Americans who don't traditionally file tax returns.

The Biden administration took a major step Wednesday to make the child tax credit accessible to the poorest Americans after months of hearing concerns from legal advocates that the process was too difficult for those who need the benefit most.

The Treasury Department unveiled an easy-to-use website to guide Americans who do not traditionally file taxes through the process of accessing the newly boosted child tax credit, a centerpiece of the American Rescue Plan that gives parents up to $3,600 per child this year.

The new tool has already gotten praise from legal aides who saw firsthand how low-income and no-income Americans have struggled to access the cash aid.

“I think the non-filer tool released today has been massively improved compared to the portal that was previously available for stimulus checks,” Sarah Martinez, a paralegal at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, told HuffPost. “It is mobile friendly, which is important because a lot of our clients do not have access to computers. It is also available in Spanish, which is great because a great number of our clients speak Spanish.”

The website also uses simpler tax language, explaining “dependents” and breaking down income thresholds instead of using terms like “AGI” (adjusted gross income), as the previous online tool did. The Internal Revenue Service website, however, still links to the more complicated non-filer portal.

A screenshot of the new website for a non-filer tool developed by the Treasury Department and the nonprofit Code for America.
A screenshot of the new website for a non-filer tool developed by the Treasury Department and the nonprofit Code for America.

On July 15, the IRS began distributing monthly checks of up to $300 per child to parents and guardians of kids under the age of 17 — a program that in the first month reached the families of nearly 60 million children. The benefit amounts to up to $3,600 per child and is open to even those who do not pay taxes. It’s the largest anti-poverty program passed through Congress in decades and has the potential to seriously cut child poverty in the United States.

Ninety percent of eligible families received the benefit automatically because they were already in the IRS system, but the remaining 10%, including extremely poor families who do not make enough money to pay taxes, have to sign up themselves.

Until now, that process has been extremely inaccessible for very poor Americans. For months, nonprofit groups and legal aid organizations and lawmakers told the administration that the sign-up tool was too complicated to navigate. The website was only in English and virtually unusable on mobile devices, which are the primary way for poor families to go online.

While this new portal is a welcomed change, it also is extremely late. Poor families have experienced these accessibility issues from the start of the coronavirus pandemic relief programs in 2020, when the IRS was distributing the economic impact payments, commonly called stimulus checks.

Congressional Democrats initially denied there were accessibility issues with the child tax credit but have since put pressure on the IRS to address issues of mobile phone usability and language barriers. Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig urging the agency fix technological issues in late July.

The IRS emphasized that the original website was built for free through a partnership with Intuit, the private tax service company behind TurboTax. The IRS had an agreement with private tax filing companies to not create free tax-filing tools.

But that agreement fell apart over the summer, and the Treasury Department partnered with the nonprofit Code for America to create this new tool.

“The new non-filer tool shows that the government can provide effective services when it tries and demonstrates that we don’t need to rely on the mediocre efforts of for-profit tax preparation firms to make our programs work,” Paul Williams, a fellow at the nonprofit Jain Family Institute said.

Already the Treasury Department has said food instability among all families with children fell by 24% immediately after the first payments went out, citing recent Census Bureau community survey numbers.

The boosted child tax credit is set to expire after the 2021 tax season, but Democrats have vowed to extend the program in their $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package.