The government’s new online portal for America’s poorest families to receive the child tax credit is proving too difficult to use and could hinder the Biden administration’s efforts to cut child poverty in the United States.
In one month, the administration will begin distributing monthly checks to parents and guardians of kids under the age of 17 as part of the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s signature $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
All families, regardless of income, are eligible for the money — an expanded child tax credit that will give families up to $300 per child every month from the IRS through December. The benefit that remains after December to reach up to a maximum of $3,600 per child a year will be given to parents with their tax returns next year.
While this money will be automatically sent out to families who file taxes, parents in the direst need of financial aid — those with incomes so low they don’t need to file taxes — must use a separate online portal to sign up for the benefit.
But already, the government’s website is proving to be very inaccessible.
“We are concerned that the tool needs to be more simple and straightforward and user friendly,” said Sergio Mata-Cisneros, a policy analyst with Christian anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, which has been doing community outreach on the child tax credit.
The website requires Americans to have an email address before inputting any personal information, is only in English and only works on desktop computers or laptops. On a mobile phone, the website is essentially unusable, with the text stretching off of the screen.
“For it to reach the people we want it to reach and to have the impact we want, it needs to be in multiple languages,” Mata-Cisneros said. “We would like to see the email requirement eliminated. Making it mobile friendly — you can’t use it on your phone — we are really concerned about that.”
The online tool looks very similar to the government website the IRS used last year to distribute stimulus checks to this same population.
“In our assessment it’s pretty much inaccessible to a lot of underserved communities,” Jen Burdick, an attorney with the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, whose clients overwhelmingly ran into issues with the online portal last year. “All in all it means most people cannot do this on their own.”
These issues don’t account for the technological divide between the very poor and everyone else, and they may ultimately prevent the neediest from receiving potentially life-saving cash benefits.
Those making less than $30,000 are much more likely to have smartphones than desktop computers, according to 2019 data from the Pew Research Center. That divide is starker for the very poor, who are even less likely to have a computer or internet access at home, and often rely on their phones for connectivity.
In 2019, nearly half of households with zero income that would have to rely on such an online tool did not have a laptop or desktop computer at home, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
And, for those who do have an email address and access to a computer, the tool itself requires a level of tax literacy non-filers often don’t have, Burdick said. The platform doesn’t simplify information requests like TurboTax would, instead it looks like a government tax return document.
The Biden administration has emphasized the child tax credit as an anti-poverty measure and has advertised the online tool as an easy-to-use portal.
“At Treasury, our goal is to make sure that every American can get the relief funding they need as simply as possible,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement this week when the IRS launched the online tool.
The IRS says it is working to improve the website but pointed out that the tool was built with two private partners: Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, and the Free File Alliance.
“On the heels of an extended filing season, the IRS worked with Intuit and the Free File Alliance to deliver the new Non-filer Sign-up Tool as quickly as possible, providing access to people who don’t normally file a tax return before monthly advance Child Tax Payments begin in July,” an IRS spokesperson told HuffPost in a statement, responding to reports of accessibility issues.
“The work on this was accelerated to make it available as quickly as possible leveraging pre-existing programming. However, we will work with our partner groups to help ensure there is wide access to this important new tool.”
Meanwhile, Intuit was quick to blame the IRS for usability issues. A spokesperson for Intuit told HuffPost, “the IRS created the requirements for the tool and would be the best source for any information or questions on it.”
Responding to one user who complained via Twitter that they couldn’t use the tool on their smartphone, an Intuit QuickBooks IT support team employee responded that the “website was created by the IRS.”
More than one-third of children in poverty in the United States live in households that don’t file taxes, and more than half of those in what is considered deep poverty (50% below the poverty line) are in non-tax-filing households, according to the People’s Policy Project, a leftist think tank.
Biden, Democratic lawmakers and administration officials have repeatedly said the policy will cut child poverty in the United States by half. But the government’s reach will be limited if it cannot improve the usability of its online portal.
Lawmakers are well aware of these issues. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) was able to “test drive” the portal in advance and raised several concerns with the IRS that she’s hoping will be addressed before the checks are sent out, her spokesperson Nick Martin said.
“I’m always concerned,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said of the government’s ability to reach the very poor. “[The IRS] wants to do it, clearly, they are trying to do it. It’s a big job. We help them, we oversee them, we cajole them if necessary. Whatever it takes.”
The online portal is only one way the IRS is trying to reach non-filers. It’s also using data from the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and Railroad Retirement Board to automatically enroll other eligible Americans who are not traditional tax filers.