On September 1, we were proud to launch GetCTC, the first bilingual, mobile responsive, and entirely free simplified tax filing tool to help families with very low incomes access the Advance Child Tax Credit (CTC) and stimulus payments. Over the past two and a half months, GetCTC has been an experiment—our bold bet that making the tax filing process easy and accessible would help us serve families who had gotten stuck in the past, and who hadn’t been able to use any previous filing tools to get their tax benefits.
This was a gamble—for nearly 18 months, these families had been getting messages about big new tax benefits, and simple ways to access them. We didn’t know if our new tool, run by a small nonprofit, would catch on.
With the end of the 2021 filing season this week, we closed GetCTC to new clients on Monday, and we are happy to say we can judge the experiment a success. After a slow start in September as we and our partners spread the word and built trust, GetCTC has been processing well over 10,000 successful returns per week for the last month. Overall—thanks in no small part to the tireless outreach and assistance efforts of advocates, community organizations, local governments, and other partners—over 100,000 families successfully filed returns using the tool, claiming nearly $400 million. We’re especially proud to count among those families many with especially significant barriers to filing. About a quarter of the people who used our service told us they had never before filed a tax return. Thousands of families filed their returns in Spanish. And together with our partners, we coached over 15,000 families through resolving issues with their returns and successfully resubmitting them, after the first return they tried to submit was not accepted by the Internal Revenue Service.
Of course, all this success was built on sweeping actions by the IRS and the US Treasury Department, both aggressively committed to the goal that every family should receive the benefits they are entitled to. GetCTC was possible only because of groundbreaking new regulations from the IRS that allowed many filers with low incomes to submit returns without reporting their income or collecting their tax documents; and, many of the families who used GetCTC only found it through the herculean publicity efforts of the White House and federal agencies. Together, these agencies have taken the biggest steps forward in decades to advance access to tax benefits for those families most in need.
GetCTC was possible only because of groundbreaking new regulations from the IRS that allowed many filers with low incomes to submit returns without reporting their income or collecting their tax documents...we need to keep and expand simplified filing in the coming years.
But there’s still much more work ahead. Here’s what we need to ensure that more families get access to the tax benefits they need and deserve.
We need to keep and expand simplified filing in the coming years.
Building on our progress starts with ensuring that simplified filing remains available in the future. The regulation that allowed us to operate GetCTC this year—letting families claim AdvCTC and stimulus without providing their income data or tax documents—does not apply to the next tax season, and must be renewed. But we can also expand and improve on these simplified filing regulations based on limitations we heard this year about the simplified filing process. For one, because the process did not accommodate the Earned Income Tax Credit (which would provide some people as much or more money than the CTC does), outreach partners found simplified filing hard to message, having to explain that it would help families access some but not all of the money they were owed. Also, families had a hard time looking up how much they had received in last year’s Economic Impact Payments (EIPs), which was a regulatory requirement for those claiming leftover stimulus money. The ideal regulation for next year would allow simplified filers to claim the EITC without reporting income, and to claim their CTC and EIPs without looking up how much they received in advance payments this year. (The IRS already has all the information it needs to take these steps: the agency has income data to determine EITC amounts based on W-2 forms filed by employers, and it has detailed records of CTC and EIP advance payments. The EIP advance payment records were in fact already used this year to correct taxpayers’ records when the filer reported the information incorrectly.) In future years, we can continue to further expand the scope of this simplified process, to more families and more use cases.
We need to improve and expand our outreach and assistance efforts.
Alongside launching GetCTC, we ran a big, multi-faceted campaign to test different ways of reaching families to get them to—and through—the tool. We ran hundreds of trainings to help all manner of state and local governments and non-profit organizations serve as CTC navigators; we worked with state and federal agencies to send direct outreach messages to their beneficiaries; we worked with school districts to do outreach to parents; and we and our partners ran nearly a dozen A/B messaging experiments. Some of these strategies paid off: text messages from state benefits agencies, for example, were reliably powerful in driving returns. We will be compiling our learnings into a comprehensive outreach/assistance report coming mid-December. We’re grateful that the current Build Back Better legislation in the House contains $1 billion for the US Treasury to advance outreach and assistance efforts, hopefully including the best practices we identify from this filing season.
We need these filing reforms backed up by increased resources for the IRS so the agency can improve its interactions with filers. The families missing out on CTC and other tax benefits are unfamiliar with accessing the tax system, and may in fact have somewhat complex tax situations—including children that other family members have previously claimed and limited income histories that can trigger IRS fraud filters. People in these situations need clear, tailored messaging speaking to their unique challenges, written in clear and concise language on IRS web pages, online tools, and mailers—and they need easy, reliable access to the IRS to resolve disputes and address errors. These families also need accessible methods to authenticate their identities when using IRS systems; this year many families have struggled to use the CTC Update Portal due to ID verification barriers. The IRS has done a remarkable job standing up this new program in just months—but these additional measures will be critical to continue the progress next year. We’re already seeing an appetite for this—it’s excellent that Congress has allocated $3.96 billion to the IRS for CTC implementation in the Build Back Better Act.
We need better, clearer data to guide all of these efforts.
This year’s outreach and engagement work was hampered by limited visibility into how many families—and which ones—we still needed to reach. While the Treasury released geographic data on unclaimed children earlier this year, that data was not nearly comprehensive, and was not updated over time. Going forward, the Treasury and the IRS should use a portion of the $1 billion appropriation in the Build Back Better Act to release up-to-date estimates of remaining unserved families by geography over time, as well as more detailed analysis of which types of families are most left out, based especially on Census-IRS data matches. The IRS should also ensure that state and local authorities have more detailed targeting lists by sharing non-filer data with them under IRC 6103(d), and begin to explore data sharing schemes with federal and state benefits agencies to effect cross-enrollment or streamlined filing.
Rolling out a new tax benefit for millions of families who may have never before interacted with the tax system is an ambitious undertaking, and it may take years to build the trust and infrastructure to finish the job.
Of course, we didn’t reach every non-filer family this year—not even close. Then again, we never said this would be easy. Rolling out a new tax benefit for millions of families who may have never before interacted with the tax system is an ambitious undertaking, and it may take years to build the trust and infrastructure to finish the job. But even in just the first year, we have made incredible strides. We created perhaps the simplest ever tool for families with low incomes to sign up for tax benefits, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how to get it in front of the right people with the assistance they need to use it. The IRS has built the infrastructure to administer and issue payments, and the Treasury has convened a wide-ranging group of stakeholders to get the message out. Next year we’ll have what we need to reach even more people and make sure every family gets the flexible cash they deserve.
Interested in more of our findings pertaining to the GetCTC client experience, common issues clients faced, outreach methods to drive clients to the tool, assistance that clients did (and did not) need, and other issues our clients saw outside the scope of simplified filing? Download our summary report.