Digital divide could deny poorest Americans new child tax benefits

by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 July 2021 17:49 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A student and his grandmother navigate an online learning system at their home in Woodinville, Washington, U.S. March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

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Tax advocates say a new web portal made to help vulnerable households apply for the extra cash is difficult to use and inaccessible to people without internet

* First payment of expanded child benefits starts on Thursday

* Users say the site is clunky and inoperable on smartphones

* About 40% of low-income Americans have no laptops or broadband

By David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES, July 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A t the Maryland nonprofit where Robin McKinney and her team help low-income Americans with their taxes, requests for help have been flooding in during the COVID-19 pandemic as libraries and other spots with free internet access shut their doors.

Now the CASH Campaign of Maryland is worried the population it serves could be missing out on another benefit, as people struggle to use a new online portal meant to help vulnerable households apply for an expanded child tax credit that starts going out on Thursday, said McKinney.

With many Americans unable to get hold of a laptop or get onto the internet, the new child credit could be out of reach for those who need it most, worries the group's co-founder and CEO.

"With the digital divide, it's really hard for people to be able to access the portal," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We need to better invest in our infrastructure to get money out to people."

The credit, typically $2,000 per child, was increased this year to $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17 and $3,600 for children under six as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package President Joe Biden signed into law in March.

Economists estimate the move could greatly decrease child poverty in the United States, where nearly 11 million - or one in seven - children live in poverty, the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, estimates.

But despite a PR blitz from the Biden administration and local civic groups, advocates helping people navigate the process say tech troubles and digital inequality put many Americans at risk of missing out when the first monthly payments for the expanded credit go out this week.

For people who have never filed anything to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) - many who do not earn enough to have to pay federal income taxes - the agency launched a separate portal to confirm their eligibility.

The website was jointly developed with financial software company Intuit and the Free File Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of digital tax preparers.

Users have reported to tax and legal advocacy groups that they are having difficulties accessing the site, saying it is clunky and almost inoperable on mobile devices – a vital tool for many lower-income Americans without easy internet access.

"It looks like spam. It asks you to take a picture of your ID - that was a red flag," Thylicia Morris, a 33-year-old mother of three from San Antonio, Texas, said in a phone interview.

In response to complaints about the new portal, IRS spokesperson Eric Smith pointed to the speed at which the site was set up.

"We felt doing so quickly was very important," he said.

He added that people looking to claim the credit can also file a 2020 tax return through the agency's Free File program.

That option has "smart-phone-friendly" products and would allow users to also claim other benefits, like the earned income credit for lower-income individuals, Smith said.

And the IRS has facilitated an extensive outreach campaign across the country to try to ensure people get the money they are entitled to, he added.

REACHING THE NEEDIEST

Lawmakers who are pushing for a permanent extension of the expanded credit vowed on an online press conference on Wednesday to keep pressuring the IRS and get the word out to those in need.

"We are concerned - we want people to know about it," said U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

"We still continue to try to make the portal as friendly as possible so that people can, in fact, be able to access it."

U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas, expressed concern about the website and said families still reeling from the financial hit of the pandemic could end up left out in the short run.

"I think (the IRS) will fulfill their commitment to be ready to go on July 15 for the ones who are the easiest, but that doesn't necessarily get the ones who are the neediest and that's who I want to reach," said Doggett, who sits on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

People who filed a tax return in 2020 or 2019 are supposed to automatically receive the payments, as are non-filers who claimed the direct stimulus payments included in earlier rounds of coronavirus relief, according to the IRS.

But about 40% of low-income Americans do not have home broadband services and the same percentage do not own a desktop or laptop computer, according to the Pew Research Center.

That makes it difficult even for families who regularly file taxes to check their status, advocacy groups say.

The IRS notes that, in some circumstances, people can simply claim the full amount of child credit they are owed when they file their 2021 taxes next year.

That is of little comfort to Trent Beaver, a maintenance worker from Florence, Mississippi, who said the extra money doled out monthly through December would be a lifesaver.

Beaver, 23, said he and his wife got married in late May and before then had been filing as single parents to claim the credit for their three children depending on who was working at the time.

Now, Beaver said, he has resorted to shipping out his kids' birth certificates to the government in a bid to make sure he is eligible since the change to his marital status.

"(I've been) running around like a duck chasing a goose to pretty much just prove to them that my kids belong to me," he said. "This is a question now?"

Beaver said he does not expect to see the cash soon.

"If it does come, a lot of the stress would be lifted off of us," he said. "(But) we're not even really looking forward to it or acting like it is going to come."

Related stories:

Coronavirus school shutdowns threaten to deepen U.S. 'digital divide'

U.S. Democrats push to make COVID-19 relief bill aid to the poor permanent

Tech issues hobble U.S. tenants fighting eviction in remote hearings

(Reporting by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro. Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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