As the government website for America’s poorest families to sign up for the monthly child tax credit remains plagued with accessibility issues, Democrats’ top ranking senator in charge of tax policy, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), is demanding answers from the Internal Revenue Service.
Wyden, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, sent a strongly worded letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig on Thursday morning urging the IRS to fix persistent technological issues with the child tax credit’s non-filer portal, the online tool that low-income and no-income families must use to sign up for the benefit.
“If this inadequacy is not rectified, millions of American families could be denied the opportunity to provide a more secure future for their children and break the cycle of poverty for so many,” Wyden wrote to Rettig, according to a copy of the letter obtained by HuffPost.
He added: “While I deeply appreciate the tireless work of the dedicated staff at the IRS to quickly stand up this critical resource, I am concerned that technological and design constraints on the portal will prevent America’s most vulnerable communities ― those who make so little income they previously did not file ― from even applying for this important funding.”
Wyden’s letter is a shift in posture for Democrats from last week, when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer firmly rejected the notion that the non-filer tool for the child tax credit was difficult to use.
Schumer insisted that the website was “very simple and easy to do.” Wyden, too, at the time just emphasized the need for a public education campaign to help families get signed up.
On July 15, the IRS began 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. Families of nearly 60 million children received checks of up to $300 per child and will continue to receive the benefit monthly through the end of the year.
The benefit amounts to up to $3,600 per child and is open to even those who do not pay taxes, making it the largest anti-poverty program passed through Congress in decades.
Ninety percent of eligible families received the benefit automatically, but the remaining 10%, including extremely poor families who do not make enough money to pay taxes, must sign up themselves.
For weeks, nonprofit groups and legal aid organizations across the country have warned that the government’s sign-up tool is too difficult to navigate.
The website is only in English and is difficult to use on mobile devices, which is the main way poor families have access to the internet. It also requires a level of tax literacy that is often too difficult to understand for those who don’t normally have to file taxes.
These accessibility issues are not new. The government used a separate but identical portal for non-filers when the IRS was distributing the Economic Impact Payments, commonly referred to as coronavirus stimulus checks. The White House and the IRS have acknowledged that that tool is inaccessible to many as well.
But it’s been hard to pinpoint why the IRS hasn’t made any changes.
The IRS emphasized that the website was built for free through a partnership with Intuit, the private tax service company behind TurboTax. The IRS has an agreement with private tax filing companies to not create a free tax-filing tool of its own.
In June, Intuit told HuffPost that it built the website based on the IRS’s requirements.
Wyden, who wrote that he was “disappointed” with the accessibility issues, asked for a firm answer: “Did the IRS use contractual requirements to mandate the development of mobile friendly websites with translations into more than just English? If not, why not? Was an explicit decision made either by the IRS or the private-sector partners to not create an accessible website?”
The IRS has been responsible for distributing hundreds of billions of dollars in direct cash benefits to the American public through three rounds of Economic Impact Payments and now the child tax credit.
Democrats, including Wyden, have acknowledged that getting the advance payments for the child tax credit out as early as July 15 was a monumental feat.
Direct-cash payments have gone a long way to alleviate financial stress during the COVID-19 pandemic and have helped keep millions of Americans out of poverty. Researchers at Columbia University found the program could cut child poverty in half. It’s a statistic Democrats have touted in recent months as they’ve toured the country selling their expanded tax credit.
But now, as many economists have warned, Wyden is acknowledging that unless the government makes it easier for the poorest Americans to receive the benefit, the program will fail to reach its full potential.
“Achieving our goal of cutting child poverty in half through the expanded CTC depends on reaching these communities,” he wrote Rettig.
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