The government's new online portal for America
's poorest families to receive the child tax credit
is proving too difficult to use, potentially jeopardizing the Biden administration
's efforts to reduce child poverty
in the United States
As part of President Joe Biden
's signature $2 trillion COVID-19
relief package, the administration will begin distributing monthly checks to parents and guardians of children
under the age of 17.
All families, regardless of income, are eligible for the funds — an expanded child tax credit that will provide families with up to $300 per child per month from the IRS
through December, with the benefit remaining after December to reach a maximum of $3,600 per child per year given to parents with their tax returns the following year.
While this money
will be distributed automatically to families who file taxes
, parents in desperate need of financial assistance — those with incomes so low that they do not need to file taxes — must sign up for the benefit through a separate online portal.
However, the government's website is already proving difficult to use.
“We are concerned that the tool should be more simple, straightforward, and user friendly,” said Sergio Mata-Cisneros, a policy analyst with the Christian anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, which has been conducting community outreach on the child tax credit.
The website requires Americans to have an email address before entering any personal information, is only in English, and only works on desktop computers or laptops; it is essentially unusable on a mobile phone, with text stretching off the screen.
“It needs to be in multiple languages to reach the people
we want to reach and have the impact we want,” Mata-Cisneros said. “We would like to see the email requirement eliminated, and we are very concerned about making it mobile friendly — you can't use it on your phone.”
These issues fail to account for the technological divide that exists between the very poor and everyone else, and they may eventually prevent the most vulnerable from receiving potentially life-saving cash benefits.
According to Pew Research
Center data from 2019, those earning less than $30,000 are much more likely to own smartphones than desktop computers, with the very poor even less likely to have a computer or internet access at home and relying on their phones for connectivity.
According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, nearly half of low-income households that would need to use such an online tool did not have a laptop or desktop computer at home in 2019.
The Biden administration has emphasized the child tax credit as an anti-poverty measure, and has marketed the online tool as a simple portal.
“At Treasury, our goal is to make sure that every American can get the relief funding they need as easily as possible,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen
said in a statement released this week, when the IRS launched the online tool.
The IRS says it is working to improve the website, but it should be noted that the tool was developed in collaboration with two private partners: Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, and the Free File Alliance.
“On the heels of an extended filing season, the IRS collaborated with Intuit and the Free File Alliance to deliver the new Non-filer Sign-up Tool as soon 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 Stardia in a statement in response to reports of accessibility
“Work on this was accelerated in order to make it available as soon as possible by leveraging pre-existing programming; however, we will work with our partner groups to ensure widespread access to this critical new tool.”
Meanwhile, Intuit was quick to blame usability issues on the IRS.
An Intuit QuickBooks IT support team employee responded to one Twitter
user who complained that they couldn't use the tool on their smartphone by saying that the "website was created by the IRS."
Thank you for contacting us, Paul. This website was designed by the IRS, and it appears to work best on a computer, so I recommend giving it a try. Rose — QuickBooksCares (@QBCares) June 17, 2021
According to the People's Policy Project, a leftist think tank, more than one-third of children in poverty in the United States live in non-tax-filing households, and more than half of those in deep poverty (50% below the poverty line) live in non-tax-filing households.
lawmakers, and administration officials have repeatedly stated that the policy will cut child poverty in the United States in half; however, the government's reach will be limited if the usability of its online portal cannot be improved.
Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) was able to “test drive” the portal ahead of time and raised several concerns with the IRS, which she is hoping will be addressed before the checks are distributed, according to her spokesperson Nick Martin.
“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, supervise them, cajole them if necessary. Whatever it takes.”
The online portal is just one way the IRS is attempting to reach out to non-filers; it is also using data from the Social Security
Administration, the Veterans
Benefits Administration, and the Railroad Retirement
Board to automatically enroll other eligible Americans who are not traditional tax filers.