Families nationwide begin receiving child tax credit payments from the federal government last week, but some worry the poorest Americans may never see a dollar.

Huge numbers of people are eligible for cash under the American Rescue Plan, including the most needy Americans. But many of them make so little money, they don’t file taxes, which is legally permissible but now a hindrance: Because the IRS disburses the tax credit money, so-called non-filers are unknown to them. And if you’re not seen, you can’t get paid.

Trying to overcome this, the IRS has set up an online portal to be used by the estimated nine million U.S. families — 14,000 believed to be in Philadelphia — that are non-filers.

But, advocates report, low-income people typically use cellphones, not computers, to go online, 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 the credit, or fear government contact, or don’t believe they are entitled to the money without having paid taxes.

As a result, nonprofits, local governments, and advocacy organizations are scrambling here in Philadelphia and throughout the nation to alert non-filers that there’s money on the table that can markedly improve their lives.

“This has become a very big problem,” said Pilar Gonalons-Pons, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who’s an expert on families and inequality. “There’s controversy because the website is not phone-friendly. There’s been a deficiency in outreach, and it’s been left up to advocacy organizations to reach those who need the money.”

Mai Miksic, early childhood policy director for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), agreed: “There’s no excuse for the federal government not doing this better, given the potential this money has to close poverty gaps. They could have done a better job informing people.”

Federal officials have said that there hasn’t been enough time to work out the kinks in the rescue plan, which was signed into law in March, and is already delivering money to those in need.

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

McConnell said that her office is planning to kick off a marketing campaign in the fall to inform city residents about the tax credit. She added that she will be utilizing $1.6 million from the city’s general fund, along with an additional $400,000 from federal block grants, to underwrite the effort.

Game-changer

Hailed as a game-changer that could significantly cut childhood poverty, the child tax credit is part of “the most aggressive proposal by an American president on behalf of families in poverty in decades,” said Luke Shaefer, a professor of public policy and poverty expert at the University of Michigan.

In the past, households had to make at least $2,500 annually to get a child tax credit, a condition that essentially penalized people for living in deep poverty, Shaefer said. But now, the child tax credit is available to all those 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 begin to phase out. Benefits are $3,000 a year per child ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 a year per child from newborn to age 5.

Half the money is being automatically delivered on a monthly basis between now and the end calendar year, mostly into Americans’ direct deposit accounts. People will get the balance when they file 2021 taxes after January, according to Deborah Weinstein, director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a Washington nonprofit.

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

For now, the credit is good only for 2021, but experts believe there’s a decent chance it will continue in the future.

60 million children

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

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

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

Challenges for non-filers

Non-filers include single people taking home under $12,400 annually; married couples making under $24,800; and head of householders earning less than $18,650. The U.S. poverty rate for a family of three is $21,960.

There are numerous challenges preventing non-filers from learning about and accessing child tax credit payments, said Roxy Caines, a director at the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

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

Many lack necessary email addresses, permanent address, and bank accounts or direct deposit access.

Quite a few believe that if they reach out for the credit, they will lose other benefits, such as Medicaid, which is untrue.

A few worry that it’s a bad idea to announce themselves to the federal government. As it happens, a person can be an undocumented immigrant and still secure a child tax credit payment as long as their children have Social Security numbers and the immigrant has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, Caines said.

“I heard of the 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 daughter.

She receives food stamps (now known as SNAP benefits) and around $3,000 a year in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Family money. Thomas’ multiple sclerosis made working at her customer-service job impossible.

A Philadelphia Community Legal Services attorney told her she could access the credit, and she reacted with joy: “’Really?’ I said. ‘That’s a crazy good thing.’ This will be so beneficial especially in these hard times.”

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

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

Jen Burdick the CLS attorney who helped Mia Thomas, said her agency is doing all it can to spread the word of the credit among non-filers it serves.

“We’re very hopeful this will catch on and become part of the permanent safety net,” she said. “It’s going to make a huge and long-needed difference in people’s lives.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.