Low-income people who don’t file tax returns will struggle to access child tax credit checks

Families across the country started receiving child tax credit payments from the federal government last week, but some fear poorer Americans will never see a dollar.

Large numbers of people are eligible for money under the US bailout, including Americans most in need. But many of them make so little money that they don’t file taxes, which is legally allowed but is now a barrier: Since the IRS pays the tax credit money, the non-filers are unknown to them. And if you are not seen, you cannot get paid.

Trying to overcome this, the IRS has set up an online portal for use by the nearly nine million American families – of which 14,000 are believed to be in Philadelphia – who do not report.

But, advocates report, low-income people typically use cell phones, not computers, to log in, and the portal has proven to be virtually impossible to navigate for those with mobile devices.

Beyond that, many of those who suffer from poverty are unaware of credit, or fear contact with the government, or do not believe that they are entitled to the money without paying taxes.

As a result, nonprofits, local governments and advocacy organizations are scrambling here in Philadelphia and across the country to alert non-filers that there is money on the table that can dramatically improve their lives.

“It has become a very big problem,” said Pilar Gonalons-Pons, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on families and inequalities. “There is controversy because the website is not phone friendly. There has been a lack of awareness, and it has been left to advocacy organizations to reach those in need of the money.

Mai Miksic, director of early childhood policy for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), agreed, “There is no excuse the federal government cannot do better, given the potential of this money to help. reduce poverty gaps. They could have done a better job of educating people.

Federal officials have said there has not been enough time to address issues with the bailout, which was enacted in March and which is already providing money to those in need.

“I wouldn’t call this a failure at all,” said Beth McConnell, policy director for the Philadelphia Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunities. “It’s no one’s fault in particular.”

McConnell said his office plans to launch a marketing campaign in the fall to educate city residents about the tax credit. She added that she will use $ 1.6 million from the city’s general fund, as well as an additional $ 400,000 in federal block grants, to fund the effort.

Hailed as a game changer that could dramatically reduce child poverty, the child tax credit is part of “a US president’s most aggressive proposal on behalf of poor families in decades,” said Luke Shaefer , professor of public policy and poverty. expert at the University of Michigan.

In the past, households had to earn at least $ 2,500 a year to get a child tax credit, a condition that essentially penalized people living in severe poverty, Shaefer said. But now the child tax credit is accessible to anyone living in poverty, even if their income is $ 0.

Overall, families with dependents qualify for the full credit if they earn up to $ 112,500 as a single parent (or head of household) or $ 150,000 jointly. After that, the payments start to disappear. Benefits are $ 3,000 per year per child aged 6 to 17 and $ 3,600 per year per child newborn to age 5.

Half of the money is automatically returned each month by the end of the calendar year, mostly to Americans’ direct deposit accounts. According to Deborah Weinstein, director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a Washington nonprofit, people will get the balance when they file 2021 taxes after January.

As they are contacted, current non-filers are advised to file their taxes next year to access the full amount, she said.

For now, credit is only good for 2021, but experts believe there is a good chance that this will continue in the future.

The White House estimates that a total of 60 million children across America are eligible for credit, at a total cost this year of $ 105 billion.

The US Department of the Treasury (of which the IRS is a part) said it sent $ 15 billion to 35 million families on July 15, the first day of child tax credit payments.

In Pennsylvania, the overall distribution breaks down to 1.3 million families with 2.2 million children receiving $ 554 million, according to Debbie Stein, network director of Partnership for America’s Children, an amalgam of advocacy organizations. Washington-based children. In New Jersey, 940,000 families with 1.5 million children receive $ 373 million.

Non-filers include singles earning less than $ 12,400 per year; married couples earning less than $ 24,800; and head of household earning less than $ 18,650. The US poverty rate for a family of three is $ 21,960.

Many challenges prevent non-filers from knowing about and accessing child tax credit payments, said Roxy Caines, director of the nonprofit’s Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Many extremely poor people are caught up in day-to-day survival and are not connected to the services and communication channels that share credit information.

Many do not have the necessary email addresses, permanent address, bank accounts or access to direct deposit.

Many believe that if they apply for the credit they will lose other benefits, such as Medicaid, which is not true.

A few fear that it would be a bad idea to come forward to the federal government. In this case, a person can be an undocumented immigrant and still get a child tax credit as long as their children have a Social Security number and the immigrant has an individual tax ID, Caines said. .

“I heard about credit, but thought it was for people who work and file taxes, and not me, ”said Mia Thomas, 37, of West Philadelphia, the unemployed mother of a 12-year-old girl. years.

She receives food stamps (now known as SNAP benefits) and about $ 3,000 a year in federal temporary assistance money for needy families. Thomas’ multiple sclerosis made his customer service job impossible.

A community of Philadelphia The Legal Services attorney told her she could access credit, and she responded happily, “’Really? ” I said. ‘This is a crazy good thing.’ It will be so beneficial, especially in these difficult times.

Graham O’Neill, director of partnerships at the Campaign for Working Families, a nonprofit offering free tax preparation in North Philadelphia, said he is reaching out to non-filers to help them prepare returns and to access the grid to access the money they deserve.

“They not only need the child tax credit, but many haven’t asked for the COVID-19 stimulus money others have been getting,” O’Neill said.

Jen Burdick, the lawyer for CLS who assisted Mia Thomas, said her agency is doing everything possible to publicize the credit to the non-filers it serves.

“We are optimistic that this will spread and be part of the permanent safety net,” she said. “It’s going to make a huge and long-needed difference in people’s lives. “

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