The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
Although last year’s temporary expansion of the child tax credit (CTC) dramatically reduced child poverty across the US, government outreach efforts struggled to connect immigrant families with their tax benefits.
In a new report, we highlight lessons learned from outreach to immigrant families in Boston. Our interviews with government officials, nonprofit partners, and immigrant families correspond with findings from prior research in Detroit, Tulsa, Houston, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia. Our findings underscore the importance of trusted messengers to provide information to immigrant households, clear and concise information on the program, and overcoming administrative barriers unique to immigrant communities.
Altogether, these strategies could improve the administration of a variety of tax and social safety net programs across the country.
Trusted messengers are key to outreach efforts
Government officials and nonprofit partners told us that they relied on trusted messengers, or those already working with immigrant families, to get the word out on the expanded CTC. For example, Boston city officials partnered with nonprofit organizations providing free legal services, such as Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS). GBLS and other nonprofit organizations then worked closely with schools, immigrant advocacy groups, hospitals, and social service agencies to organize information sessions, text messaging campaigns, and newsletters.
Our interviewees also emphasized an area for improvement: dedicating more government resources to train these advocates to better understand complicated tax information. Some recommended also involving church leaders and Medicaid program staff, who often work closely year-round with undocumented and mixed-status families in need.
Information should be clear and easy to find
Guiding immigrant households on their eligibility for CTC benefits also required information translated into their primary language. Interviewees noted that translating information on tax benefits into the eight to 12 predominant languages of the region, and incorporating a multi-lingual approach into flyers, websites, and other advertisements, was challenging but necessary.
For example, the findyourfunds.org website, maintained by a coalition of Massachusetts organizations working to increase access to stimulus payments and tax credits, included FAQs in nine languages, and downloadable outreach materials (flyers, robocall templates, email templates, and social media posts) in 12 languages.
Despite these efforts, immigrant families still told us that accessing the CTC was difficult because of language and cultural barriers. In part, this was because while information was disseminated in various languages, it was difficult to access free legal tax services with multi-lingual staff. Critically, more linguistically and culturally competent tax preparers were needed to convince some immigrant families who thought the credit was a loan or scam.
Immigrant communities face unique barriers
Between 2019 and 2021, changes to the “public charge rule” created deep fears in immigrant communities, preventing many from accessing government benefits. Although receipt of CTC benefits was not included as a factor to potentially deny visas and green cards and although the revised rule is no longer in effect, most interviewees told us that families were reluctant to claim the CTC out of fears of consequences to their immigration status.
These fears were compounded for those without social security numbers (SSNs). Eligible children must have an SSN, but parents or caretakers can claim the CTC on children’s behalf with either an SSN or an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN).
Further, parents who needed to apply for an ITIN had to jump through additional hoops in a short period of time. This included filing applications by mail, getting them verified by a certified acceptance agent, and sending original documents, all while waiting times to get ITINs processed took as long as a year. Although SSN holders could claim the CTC late, the extension did not apply to those otherwise eligible but not holding ITINs by the end of tax season. Thus, many US citizen children in mixed-status families were excluded.
Over the period we studied, many free legal clinics simply did not work with ITIN immigrants or immigrants with more-complicated tax returns. Except for GBLS staff, there were few other tax preparers in the region trained with linguistic, cultural, and tax competencies, especially to service mixed-status families. And the COVID-19 pandemic made outreach and tax filing services even more complicated. For instance, IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites had reduced functionalities, because most turned their services online, which meant that some immigrants needing extra tax assistance were left unattended.
The expanded CTC has since expired, returning it to lower levels of income support and limiting tax benefits for families with very low incomes that do not file tax returns. But the CTC is still available to many immigrant and mixed-status families if they have some earnings and if their children have SSNs.
However, barriers faced by immigrant communities to access any version of the CTC also persist.
The lessons we highlight here could provide a roadmap for other communities across the nation to ensure immigrant families access tax benefits and other safety net programs they are eligible for.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg