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New tax credit could cut child poverty in half, but White House and Northwest tribes fear poorest families could miss out

UPDATED: Tue., June 22, 2021

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Starting in July, most American families are eligible to receive monthly payments of up to $300 per child that promise to cut child poverty by nearly half, but the White House and Inland Northwest tribes warned Monday that some of the children who need the benefits most could miss out unless their parents sign up through a new website.

As part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill President Joe Biden signed into law in March, Congress transformed the existing Child Tax Credit into what is effectively a monthly child allowance for all but the highest-earning parents. Families who have filed taxes for 2019 or 2020 will automatically receive their first payments July 15, but low-income parents who didn’t file taxes in those years because they earned too little will need to request the money through an online portal set up by the Internal Revenue Service.

The revamped credit could reduce child poverty by nearly 45%, a Columbia University analysis estimated in January, and by more than 61% among Native American kids, but tribal leaders worry limited internet access on reservations could hamper the administration’s efforts to get low-income families signed up through the IRS website.

“If you don’t have access to broadband or cell service, then that’s just not going to work,” said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Instead, he suggested the Biden administration should help rural tribes do door-to-door visits and other outreach that doesn’t rely on internet access.

“We have some of the highest unemployment rates and rates of poverty in Washington state,” Cawston said. “These are the people that really need this funding, and the only way to effectively do this is to provide us those additional resources.”

On a call with reporters Monday – part of a “Child Tax Credit Awareness Day” launched by the White House – senior Biden advisor Gene Sperling said getting all eligible families signed up for the payments “is going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

Sperling and Jennifer Klein, executive director of the White House Gender Policy Council, touted the administration’s outreach efforts, but Cawston and officials with other Inland Northwest tribes said Monday they had not yet been contacted by the White House or federal agencies.

When asked how the administration planned to reach Indigenous families who don’t have internet access, Sperling told The Spokesman-Review the messaging push was intended to reach not only low-income families but also community groups that can help them sign up for the payments.

“This pushes far in the direction of increasing access to those who’ve not signed up in the past, but there’s still further to go,” Sperling said. “And one of the things we want to do is work with organizations – Indigenous organizations, anti-poverty organizations – to make sure that we are reaching as many people as we can.”

Tyrel Stevenson, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s legislative director, called the risk of low-income families not receiving the monthly payments “an important and overlooked issue.”

“There are a lot of tribal members who do not file income tax returns because they make too little to file,” Stevenson wrote in an email. “The IRS has created an online assistant tool for non-filers, but obviously that doesn’t do any good if they don’t know about it or don’t have access to a computer. So at this point, it appears that the tribe is going to have to do the outreach and support for the Treasury Department so folks don’t miss the opportunity they are entitled to get.”

Proponents of the one-year experiment, which Democrats want to make permanent, have pointed out the lowest-income families couldn’t benefit from the credit in its previous form, which let families deduct up to $2,000 per child when filing their federal taxes each year. Families that owed less than that amount didn’t qualify for the full credit.

The new credit will be issued in monthly payments of $300 for kids under age 6 and $250 for those aged 6 to 17, totaling as much as $3,600 a year. Because the payments kick in halfway through the year, families can claim the rest of the credit when filing taxes next year. Parents can opt to defer the monthly payments and collect the full amount as a traditional credit when filing taxes, Sperling said Monday, and those who don’t receive all six monthly payments in 2020 are still eligible for the full amount come tax time.

Nez Perce spokeswoman Kayeloni Scott said the tribe hadn’t heard from the Biden administration about the Child Tax Credit but added that the tribe has the resources to provide financial education through its Nimiipuu Fund and Tribal Housing Authority.

“From the first round of COVID stimulus checks that went out last year, we strongly pushed out information to help people receive access especially for those that do not file taxes or have a unique situation,” Scott wrote in an email. “We have not received any information for the new child tax credit yet, but once we do we will follow similar protocols to ensure folks are receiving the correct information.”

Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Council, said the tribal government she leads is also prepared to spread the word and help members sign up for the payments.

Afton Servas, public relations coordinator for the Kalispel Tribe, said the tribe’s chief financial officer had received emailed reminders from the IRS and the White House encouraging outreach to their members about the tax credit. While she conceded the White House has had limited time and said the tribe’s finance team would help members with the online portal, Servas said the administration could have done more to spread the word.

“For as much as the government is hyping the credit and its positive effect on families living below the poverty line, there should have been additional resources,” she said. “It would have been relatively easy to put together a few different ads for radio and social media platforms that announced the credit, explained how the payments will be distributed, and info on how to file or how to access the IRS portal.”

After the press call, a White House spokeswoman told The Spokesman-Review the administration is “partnering with the Department of Interior to reach Native communities” and provided a written statement from Sperling.

“We are absolutely committed to working with tribal leaders and tribal advocacy groups in the weeks and months ahead to ensure we are doing what we can to sign up all children including those in tribal communities,” Sperling said in the statement.

The expanded Child Tax Credit passed through the American Rescue Plan Act in March is set to expire at the end of 2021, but Democrats in Congress are pushing to extend the new credit or even make it permanent through new legislation. While Republicans are likely to oppose a broad spending bill that would include such a provision, GOP criticism of the monthly payments to parents has been muted. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has proposed even larger payments to parents as part of a plan that would reduce some other benefits for low-income Americans.

More information on the Child Tax Credit is available at ChildTaxCredit.gov.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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