The IRS will start sending monthly child tax credit payments next month, for parents, grandparents and other guardians caring for children up to 17 years old. This is the centerpiece of President Biden’s anti-poverty agenda.
It would have been nice if the agency had kept people like Willard McGruder in mind when they presented their digital plans to reach some of the people most in need of money — low-income Americans who earn little to file an Annual Tax Returns.
McGruder is still awaiting the last two stimulus payments for the grandchildren in his care, a $4,000 check from the IRS that he should have received several months ago. The delay indicates the difficulties in getting money for pandemic relief for those most in need, and it’s unclear whether the IRS has overcome that hurdle with its new online tool, which works on desktops and laptops but isn’t compatible with mobile devices.
Payments from July have been approved under the American Rescue Plan, which included a measure of expanding the child tax credit for fiscal year 2021 to $3,600 fully refundable for children ages 5 and under and $3,000 for children ages 6-17.
McGruder would be entitled to monthly payments of $300 for 2-year-old Rahine and $250 for her other grandson, 8-year-old Keshawn. The retiree says he needs a bedtime game for Keshawn. He’s trying to catch up on a utility bill.
“The money would be a help,” he said. “I would be grateful.”
This week, the IRS released an updated version of online non-filing tool was used last year to help people claim stimulus payments. The tool is now enabled to help non-filers apply for child tax credit advance payments. It was developed in partnership with Intuit and is designed specifically for families that do not normally file tax returns.
Eligible families who have already filed or plan to file 2019 or 2020 federal returns, or who used the no-file tool in the past year, should not use this tool.
Instead, the IRS says, the tool was built to provide an easy way for qualified people who earn very little and therefore do not need to file an income tax return, to provide the agency with the basic information needed to issue the advance. child’s monthly tax credit payments.
Except the tool is anything but easy, said Jennifer Burdick, supervising attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, and Melanie Malherbe, managing attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services.
While they praised the IRS for developing the online no-filing tool, they argued that the portal is unlikely to be accessible to many people who are most in need of monthly child tax credit payments. After all, this is supposed to be the Biden government big social safety net initiative – and is designed to cut child half poverty.
“I’m disappointed that the IRS hasn’t learned any lessons from the problems with the non-filer portal last year,” said Burdick. “This portal is not yet compatible with mobile devices. And I think it’s a great hotspot. It’s still only in English. ”
I asked Intuit if the tool could be used on a mobile device.
“Users can register for monthly Advance Child Tax Credit payments through their browser on their computer or mobile device,” the company said via email.
but in a Common questions, the IRS explicitly said “no” to using the non-filing tool on a phone. “We recommend using the product on a laptop or desktop computer,” the agency writes.
When setting up an account, people must provide an email address. But many potential users don’t have one and are therefore prevented from using the tool, Burdick and Malherbe point out.
“There is a digital divide,” said Burdick. “Many low-income people don’t have access to laptops or Wi-Fi. Smartphones are the most pervasive way for people to connect to the Internet. The goal of this portal is to make archiving as accessible as possible, so I’m a little perplexed that this big step hasn’t been taken. ”
Malherbe is also concerned that many people are unable to use the portal.
“The estimates of lifting children out of poverty are premised on access,” said Malherbe. “The instructions on the portal are written very densely and confusingly. It’s the opposite of simple. ”
Malherbe said that many non-filers need direct human interaction with people who know enough to translate information about what the IRS requires.
“The odds that the IRS did it well were probably slim, but this is even worse than I imagined,” she said.
Malherbe said his organization will likely end up helping people just file a statement.
“From our side, this is actually easier to do than using a tool like this,” she said. “It would be helpful if the IRS recognized the resources needed to make this accessible.”
The challenges could result in significant delays for families receiving monthly child tax credit payments, she said.
Nina Olson, who served as an independent national taxpayer advocate for 18 years, says she is “deeply” disappointed with the updated version of the non-filers portal.
“We know a lot about this population,” said Olson, now executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights. “They don’t necessarily have laptops. They can be disabled. They may have functional literacy challenges. There has to be another way to help these people, maybe with a phone-based system. ”
In response to the criticism, the IRS said in an e-mailed statement: “Work on this has been accelerated to make it available as quickly as possible, taking advantage of pre-existing programming. However, we will work with our partner groups to help ensure there is wide access to this important new tool. ”
To be fair to the IRS, sending monthly child tax credit payments is a big increase for a agency already besieged. Still, in this next step of serving an economically vulnerable population, the agency needs to intensify its game.