The past year saw some of the biggest experiments in flexible cash delivery through the tax system in U.S. history. From the Economic Impact Payments to the expanded Child Tax Credit, tens of millions of families received the financial support they needed to weather a difficult time.
Code for America’s tax benefits team works to ensure that people who hadn’t filed taxes before, or who don’t usually file taxes because they are below the required income threshold, have equal access to the tax benefits they deserve. So in September 2021, we launched GetCTC, a simplified filing web application that clients could access from any web browser, mobile phone, tablet, or desktop, available in both English and Spanish. GetCTC asks questions in straightforward, user-friendly language; guides clients through simple questions to determine eligibility; and has chat support available if clients get stuck.
Over 10 weeks in fall 2021, over 115,000 families successfully filed returns using GetCTC, claiming an estimated $440 million. In many ways, though, last year was a pilot. GetCTC was built on a new and innovative “simplified filing process,” which allowed families not otherwise required to file tax returns to submit a streamlined set of information to the IRS to claim the CTC and any missed Economic Impact Payments. Since simplified filing has been renewed for the 2022 tax season, we’re getting ready to help even more households this year. In preparation for that, we’ve compiled our learnings in this summary report, and are excited to share them with the field to inform our collective next steps.
We’re getting ready to help even more households this year.
Some of our findings
The biggest takeaway we learned from implementing GetCTC is that simplified filing was successful—even people who had never filed taxes before were able to use GetCTC, finish the process quickly, and find it easy, allowing them to receive tax benefits that they otherwise would have missed out on. GetCTC reached the clients who needed it most; according to a survey of more than 12,000 clients, 24% had never filed taxes in their lives and over half were people of color.
GetCTC clients truly did find the process easy. 78% of survey respondents found the tool “easy” or “extremely easy”—and only 4% found it “slightly difficult,” “difficult,” or “extremely difficult.” A typical client used GetCTC on a mobile phone and got a notification of IRS acceptance just 10 minutes after starting their return—and over 99% of clients got through the tool without requiring live chat assistance. Of those whose returns were accepted, 87% were accepted on their first try.
Simplified filing was so successful that it calls into question some of this movement’s underlying assumptions. While we and other advocates have insisted for years that mere outreach around tax benefits is not enough—that non-filers are an especially marginalized population and need significant hands-on support to get their taxes filed. But this is only true when tax filing is complicated. For many people with low incomes, GetCTC was in fact simple enough that they can confidently use it themselves. With simplified filing, in many cases, outreach alone is enough.
We’ve crunched data from dozens of different outreach and messaging experiments to see which methods worked best. The most powerful outreach to non-filers came in the form of direct messages (texts, emails, robocalls, letters) from benefits agencies linking to GetCTC. If every state benefits agency in the country sent just one reasonably comprehensive text message to beneficiaries, it would likely generate around 50,000 accepted returns. A well-targeted letter from the IRS can probably generate well over 100,000 accepted returns. We hope to see some of these strategies put to use in the 2022 tax season.
The simplicity of GetCTC is a proof of concept for how simple the rest of this system can and should look.
The summary report also includes findings on the effectiveness of other outreach methods, such as social media, search ads, robocalls, radio, billboards, and celebrity endorsements. It explores the role that community navigators can play, including some surprising findings about when and how navigators should—and should not—engage clients, proposes a new framework for individualized tax benefits engagement and support, and outlines a new set of metrics organizations may consider using in implementing these programs.
There’s a lot of hard work to do this year, and clients continue to struggle with many aspects of the tax system. But, in the long run, the simplicity of GetCTC—thanks to the US Treasury and IRS’s leadership—is a proof of concept for how simple the rest of this system can and should look. This work isn’t easy or fast, and even with the best efforts across government and civil society it will take years to fully reach all non-filers—but the easier we make it for them to file taxes, the more likely we are to help them get the tax benefits they deserve. With GetCTC, we’re showing that’s possible.
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.
For full details, analysis, and data underlying these conclusions, please see our complete analytics report.