At an event at the White House on Thursday afternoon with Vice President Harris, Biden extolled the benefit as representing a “historic” achievement and said it would be one of the administration’s proudest accomplishments. The president, urging Congress to extend the program beyond this year, emphasized that it amounts to a “middle-class tax cut” that will help working-class families make ends meet.
“It’s our effort to take another giant step toward ending child poverty in America,” said Biden, who was joined by nine families, including young children, that will receive the tax credit.
The program is a major political and economic test for Biden and his administration. Already, the Internal Revenue Service has come under fire for producing a beneficiary website that critics say is difficult to navigate. Some experts think the White House is overstating the program’s anti-poverty impact. The payments are going out amid concerns that the U.S. economy is running too hot, which means they could further fuel inflation. And the White House’s attempt to extend the program beyond December is tangled up in broader congressional negotiations, leaving its long-term fate uncertain.
But White House officials say the criticism risks obscuring the potentially transformational effect of the program. If successful, they say, it could lift millions of American children out of poverty — which could translate into major improvements in child nutrition, educational outcomes and mental health for an enormous number of people. The benefit also could, at least temporarily, build on goals that Democrats advanced with the passage of the Affordable Care Act by trying to expand the federal safety net for millions of families.
“This is the biggest anti-poverty effort since Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty,” said Joshua McCabe, a historian of U.S. welfare policy at Endicott College. “This is a once-in-a-longtime chance to significantly reduce child poverty.”
For the vast majority of beneficiaries, or about 86 percent, the new monthly benefit will be automatically deposited into their bank accounts — with no action required. Wealthier families are excluded from the benefit. The credit diminishes for individuals with adjusted gross incomes of more than $75,000, as well as for couples earning more than $150,000, and disappears altogether for higher earners.
Crucially, however, the very poorest families are eligible to receive the full benefit. Before this year, families were excluded from the credit if they did not earn enough for their income to be offset by the tax benefit. The stimulus package repealed that limitation, meaning that even Americans with no earnings would still qualify for the entire deposit amount. The benefit was also made larger and will go out monthly, instead of when taxpayers reconcile their tax returns. These changes are set to expire at the end of the year, although Democrats in Congress are preparing a $3.5 trillion spending package that lawmakers hope will extend the payments.
The administration has said the March stimulus plan will result in child poverty decreasing by as much as 50 percent, citing estimates of the child tax benefit from researchers at Columbia University and others. But concerns have mounted that this number is significantly inflated. The data kept by the IRS is often out of date, particularly for low-income families in which custodial status changes frequently. And millions of other families, often the very poorest, have never filed income tax returns — which means the IRS will have trouble finding them to give them the payments.
These concerns have been intensified by criticism that the administration’s attempts to reach these parents outside the tax system are inadequate and clumsy. An online portal — prepared in partnership with the tax preparer Intuit — has been criticized as being difficult to use, lacking a mobile option, and being accessible only in English. Rick Heineman, an Intuit spokesman, said in a statement Thursday that the portal was prepared without cost to the IRS.
Although about 10 million children are in poverty, approximately 7 million children belong to households that are eligible for the payments but do not file income taxes, meaning they are at risk of being missed for the payments, according to the People’s Policy Project, a left-leaning think tank. Many, if not most, of these households are poor.
In his remarks Thursday, Biden did not claim that the rescue plan and child payments would reduce child poverty by 50 percent, as the White House has previously said. Instead, he said it would create the single greatest one-year decline in child poverty.
“I’m so happy this is happening, but everyone saying ‘Just get non-filers to file’ needs to see that the system is just not designed for that,” said Jen Burdick, a lawyer at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which is working to enroll poor parents in the program. “We need to get them into the system, but the system is not designed to take them in.”
The White House, the Treasury Department and IRS stress that they have launched what they have described as an all-out effort to pull in as many poor families as possible that are outside the tax system.
Gene Sperling, a White House official in charge of implementing the March stimulus, said the administration got the IRS to change its plans and create a portal for Americans who do not file income taxes.
Sperling acknowledged that the online portal was hard to use and that it should be improved. He said it was not secured until early May and was not viewed by White House officials until June.
Sperling also said that a 35 percent to 40 percent reduction in child poverty still would be about three times the prior biggest single-year drops in child poverty, which he said had been, at most, in the 10 percent to 12 percent range. He also said the administration thinks 26.5 million children did not receive the full credit under the old program because their family income was too low but will automatically receive the benefit starting Thursday. He stressed that this is only the first month of a program that he said will be improved over time.
“This has the potential to be the type of historic legislation in the spirit of Social Security, in that the same policy will provide dramatic tax relief and support to families across the middle class while being the most effective tool for reducing child poverty,” Sperling said.
About 470,000 people with more than 720,000 children used a portal for non-filers set up by the IRS to claim stimulus payments approved during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The hard news is this population of parents let three stimulus payments sit on the ground. This is a hard population to reach; in the worst of times, you’ve offered thousands of dollars, and they have not signed up,” he added. “That is why we must stay at it and work smarter and harder to get more people signed up.”
Some critics say these problems could have been avoided with a better policy design. Democrats insisted on excluding wealthy Americans from the benefit, arguing that rich families did not need the help. That decision also made the provision more administratively cumbersome, according to some critics, because it meant the IRS — which has data on individual incomes — had to administer the program.
“If this is not done effectively, it’s a risk for the White House as a whole and could generate a backlash that undermines the entire program,” said Sam Hammond, a poverty expert at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank, who helped to write a competing child benefit plan for Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a key advocate for the measure along with Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and other members of the House and the Senate, expressed a high-degree of confidence in IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, to implement the program.
“We’re going to reach the next few million in the weeks ahead,” Brown said in an interview. “I’m confident we’ll get the great majority” of children.
June Morris, 38, a program coordinator at a nonprofit organization in Long Island, will not receive the benefit Thursday. Morris’s baby was born this year, which means the IRS does not have information showing she has a child, and Morris said she is also wary of taking money that she thinks she will owe the IRS at the end of the year.
Morris’s monthly day-care bill is $1,100 — about half her total monthly income — and she was forced to move back in with her parents this year to save money on rent to afford day-care. Even receiving the monthly child benefit would not be enough to offset the crushing day-care costs meaningfully, she said.
“That’s nothing. That’s not even enough for diapers and formula,” said Morris, a single mother who said she earns about $55,000 per year. “If they funded these day cares, to decrease the cost every month, that would help. I’m not looking for a Band-Aid. I’m looking for something long-term. I know other countries do better.”
Still, advocates see a chance, despite the challenges, to accelerate the United States’ slow progress over the past century on economic stability for the working class.
The vast majority of people who are in poverty in the United States are outside the labor market, which means they have no income from work. In the 1930s, the government created Social Security to provide pensions to older Americans who could no longer work. In the 1950s, Social Security was extended to cover another group of people who do not work — people with disabilities — through disability insurance. In the 1970s, another group without income — college students — was helped through new education subsidies.
And now, the United States is beginning to extend aid to one of the last remaining group of nonworkers — children.
“The speed of it is striking. This was enacted in March, and this is rolling out in July,” said Seth Hanlon, a policy expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “It’s pretty amazing that four months after passage of legislation, money is going out to close to 90 percent of children.”
Alexis Figueroa, 36, of Philadelphia said she received the benefit on Wednesday, a day earlier than expected, after a local community tax support group helped her fill out her application. Figueroa is a single mother with no income support, aside from the occasional help of her children’s father, after she was cut off from Social Security disability payments.
She is planning to use the money to take her two children to the zoo. One of them, age 1, loves polar bears; the other, age 3, is particularly excited about seeing a tiger. It will be one of the few activities the family has been able to afford since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Emotionally, it was a relief,” Figueroa said about receiving the money. “It would be nice to take them to see the animals.”