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Michael Meeropol: Calling On Internet Savvy Volunteers

On July 29, the New York Times published a story entitled, “Temporary Pandemic Safety Net Drives Poverty to a Record Level.”   The article noted that the money appropriated by Congress in 2020 had not only helped businesses (which was the reason Secretary Mnuchin of the Trump Administration supported them) but also went directly to people in the form of expanded unemployment insurance, food stamps and stimulus checks.  According to the Times, “The number of poor Americans is expected to fall by nearly 20 million from 2018 levels, a decline of almost 45 percent.”  (And this is despite the fact that in 2020, the economy contracted and now has seven million fewer jobs than before the pandemic began.)   That’s the good news.  Unfortunately, the bad news is that all of these emergency programs were temporary and began to expire in the Fall of 2020. 

[For details, see Jason DeParle, “Temporary Pandemic Safety Net Drives Poverty to a Record Level,” NYTIMES, July 29, 2021:  A1-A16 available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/us/politics/covid-poverty-aid-programs.html]

The American Rescue Plan which President Biden pushed through in March (which suddenly got no Republican support even though the ones the previous year got unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats) helped fill the gap left when many of the provisions from 2020 expired.

As I noted in a commentary in March, the most significant part of the American Rescue Plan was not the temporary reinstatement of some of the emergency spending from 2020.  Instead, it was the expansion of the child tax credit and making it REFUNDABLE.   That word means that even if your tax burden is zero, you get the full amount as a direct payment.   Unfortunately, the money appropriated in March to expand the child tax credit was only good for the year.   It is the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” bill being proposed --- which will have to be passed using reconciliation --- that promises to extend that refundable child tax credit.   In my opinion, the ultimate goal should be to make the expansion of the refundable child tax credit permanent.   If that occurs, then most observers believe the reduction in poverty we have already experienced will be followed by an even greater reduction specifically in child poverty.

[For details see Robert Greenstein and Adrianna Pita,

“How Could Expanded Tax Credits Reduce Child Poverty?” a Brookings Podcast, July 16, 2021.  Both transcript and audio available at

https://www.brookings.edu/podcast-episode/how-could-expanded-tax-credits-reduce-child-poverty/]

Spending money to alleviate poverty is a valuable way to spend the taxpayers’ money.   Poor children do worse in school, have less productive lives, and often require much more government money to sustain them as adults.   They often suffer health consequences which requires more government spending to care for them.   These less productive, sometimes ill adults, would have been much better off if the poverty they were born into had been countered with programs like Head Start, childhood nutrition, compensatory education programs, etc.   In addition to the positive results of actually investing government money in the well being of the poor, especially poor children there is another positive contribution to American society.   Every dollar of extra income received by a poor family as a result of a government program will be spent --- and therefore received as income by some business and their workers.

In the context of the pandemic, there are even extra benefits from poverty reduction.   The poorer you are, the less ability you have to stay home to help your child who is being schooled remotely.  The poorer you are, the less ability you have to stay home from work when you fear being infected by the pandemic – which means poor people are more likely to get sick and even die from the pandemic.   In general, poor people just have much less flexibility as to how they spend their time --- and therefore less ability to take necessary steps to protect themselves and their families.   I would argue that a significant number of people are alive today who would NOT BE ALIVE had it not been for the emergency extra money that was specifically targeted at the poor and workers.   For those who complained that the generous unemployment insurance induced people not to work in the era of the pandemic, I say, to the extent that spending that money saved lives it was money very well spent.

For the long term, the most important thing about the refundable child tax credit is making sure that every eligible child’s family gets the money promised by the law.   This is easy for those people who file income tax returns.  The IRS will check out their income, see that it’s below the cut off ($112,000 for single filers who are heads of households, $150,000 for married couples), and automatically begin to send checks.  But what about families who are so poor they don’t file income tax returns?   How will they sign up for the credit?

A staffer at the Urban Institute sent me a pretty detailed letter which reads in part “…the outreach efforts for the refundable child tax credit are stronger than they were during the pandemic for the economic impact payments …. By the summer and fall [of 2020], the IRS had begun more concerted efforts to get the word out—through partnerships with national and local organizations and by sending letters to nonfilers (who could be identified through W-2s, etc.) telling them of their potential eligibility for the economic impact payments. So, for the rollout of the refundable child tax credit, the IRS is able to build on those efforts and has gone further to do more. Still, the biggest challenge (in my mind) continues to be that people have to have access to the internet on a computer to enroll. Payments are also expedited if they have bank accounts for direct deposits.”

This is where the rest of us come in.  The IRS has a link to what it calls a “non-filer sign-up tool.”  It is the way families who do not file income tax returns can sign up to receive the refundable child tax credit.  There are of course problems with this approach.  Some immigrant families have poor command of English, but the web site is only in English.  Second, many people are not internet savvy.   I checked out the site and decided that perhaps with a little help from my grandson, even I could learn how it works, so I could be part of a group that helps families navigate that site and apply for the credit.

I suggest that members of religious organization, self-help group, veterans’ group, etc. who are internet savvy (or who have a teenaged son/daughter/grandchild) do what I plan to do.   Take out an ad in a local newspaper that on such and such a day at a local public library or some other public facility with internet access, a team of computer savvy folks will be there to guide individuals through the IRS website to sign up for the extended child tax credit.

There are a minimum of 4 million children all over the country who are eligible for the credit but whose families have never filed income tax returns.   In some zip codes this is in the hundreds, in some it’s less.  But every one of those families would benefit from an outpouring of volunteers to help them sign up.   Thanks in advance, my fellow citizens.   Not only will the individuals benefit but so will the entire country.  As I noted above, every extra dollar spent by a poor family is extra income for some worker and some business.

For those who are interested, here is the link to the non-filer sign-up tool:

https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/child-tax-credit-non-filer-sign-up-tool

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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