Introduction by Ryan Rippel, Director, Economic Mobility and Opportunity Strategy,
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Millions of individuals struggle every day to climb the economic ladder, realize financial security, and seize opportunities to improve their own lives and the lives of their families. Unfortunately, their aspirations are often hindered by barriers beyond their control that decrease their chances and limit their pathways out of poverty.
This is true for individuals experiencing challenges to gainful employment, workers earning low wages, and those in jobs with low earning trajectories, especially Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other people of color and women who often face additional systemic barriers due to racism and sexism. We’re working to change this with the collaborative help of our partners, local leaders, and other funders through our Economic Mobility and Opportunity Strategy.
One of the barriers we often see is the burdensome and largely bureaucratic processes that prevent people eligible for public benefits -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Benefits – or tax credits -- Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit -- from accessing them. It’s estimated that $60 billion in public benefits go unclaimed each year with 18% of the individuals eligible for SNAP and 20% of those eligible for EITC not accessing those resources they qualify to receive.
Removing these barriers to financial resources is one way to help individuals and families move toward short-term economic stability while they continue on the path to long-term economic security. Code for America, one of our partners, is working with community organizations and government agencies to increase access to public benefits through human-centered technology.
In this guest blog post, David Newville -- Senior Program Director of Tax Benefits at Code for America -- shares how the organization is creating tools that make these processes easier, allowing more families to access the public benefits and tax credits they’ve already earned.
-Ryan Rippel, Director, Economic Mobility and Opportunity Strategy
Tackling Poverty and Inequality with Human-Centered Technology and Data
By David Newville, Senior Program Director of Tax Benefits at Code for America
Flexible cash is one of the best tools we have to increase economic mobility for the 65 million Americans—including 11 million children—living in poverty today. With rising inflation and when more than 50% of Americans cannot afford a $1,000 unexpected bill, cash support helps people provide for their basic needs, find and keep living wage jobs, and handle emergencies. Flexible cash is also highly empowering and supports equity and economic justice by recognizing that individuals and families are the experts on their own budgets and bank accounts. With flexible cash, they decide for themselves how to spend the money—whether it’s a car repair, medical bill, or shoes for their kids.
The U.S tax system is one of the greatest resources available to help people access flexible cash; yet each year, billions are left on the table. Many don’t file taxes because their income level doesn’t require them to—and because the process is confusing, costly, and burdensome. But when so many benefits are tied through the tax system, not filing means that many people are missing out on the benefits they deserve. And often, these are the individuals and families who need help most.
The tax system distributes cash via tax credits and stimulus payments. Credits are available to many people with low or moderate incomes through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the country’s largest benefit for workers, and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). These benefits are some of the most effective programs for lifting families out of poverty and getting those benefits into the hands of the people who need them most is the mission of Code for America’s Tax Benefits program.
Code for America’s vision is for a free, accessible, and human-centered tax filing system where people can reliably access all the tax credits they’re eligible to receive. The Tax Benefits program connects low- and no-income families to tax benefits like the EITC, the CTC, and others while working to transform systems that perpetuate economic inequalities in the longer term. Our strategy is two-fold:
- Provide direct services that streamline access to flexible cash for families through mobile-friendly, multi-language digital tax assistance tools.
- Leverage data, research, and insights gleaned from those direct services to educate and inform the public and policymakers on how to reduce administrative barriers, expand access to critical public services, and implement policy reforms to create lasting systems change.
In 2020, thanks to support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other funders, Code for America built the only online, mobile-friendly application connecting tax filers with free, IRS-certified tax help at GetYourRefund.org. Since GetYourRefund launched two years ago, we have helped over 700,000 people navigate their tax situation and file taxes for free, distributing more than $880 million in tax benefits.
Code for America’s newest portal, GetCTC, helps families access the Child Tax Credit and other tax benefits they might have missed, including stimulus payments. The portal is free, mobile-friendly, and available in English and Spanish. In just 10 weeks in 2021, we helped distribute more than $440 million to help families with basic expenses like childcare, school supplies, and groceries through GetCTC. Coupled with the automatic payments the IRS sent to millions of families, the number of households reporting they didn’t have enough to eat fell by 3.3 million during the latter half of 2021.
Thanks to continued support from the foundation, GetCTC re-launched on May 11, 2022; already, we’ve accepted nearly 10,000 returns and distributed more than $30 million in flexible cash. In 2022, the GetCTC portal is helping people access the second half of the CTC -- or the full amount if they didn't claim the advance payments in 2021 -- and the third stimulus payment. Families can claim the credit through mid-November 2022 and, after that, have three years to file back taxes to claim it.
Recently, we expanded GetCTC to Puerto Rico residents. Now, the vast majority of families on the island can claim the CTC using our online tool in just 10 to 15 minutes. We hope that GetCTC will help reach up to hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican children who may still be missing out on this critical benefit. Later this year, we'll be adding EITC functionality to GetCTC for a small number of clients, with the goal of showing the IRS that including the EITC in simplified filings helps more clients access more benefits more easily.
Additionally, we're in the very early stages of working on a pilot with a small number of states that have state tax credits, connecting GetCTC to their state systems so that clients can access all the benefits they're eligible to receive, not just federal benefits.
Through all of this, we are leveraging our insights from last year’s tax season to reach as many families as possible through targeted outreach, partnerships with over 200 organizations as navigators and trusted messengers, as well as state benefits agencies across the country.
It’s a challenging time, but a time of enormous opportunity. It’s a time to reimagine and simplify the tax system, to get rid of the unnecessary, outdated administrative and procedural burdens that keep families from accessing the benefits they’ve already earned.
If we can get this right—leveraging political momentum for structural change with a national reckoning on inequality and a movement toward streamlined, simplified applications—we can help create the conditions that will help millions of Americans access financial stability and economic mobility. That means more flexible cash in the hands of families so they can put food on the table, pay rent, or use the money in whatever ways they need it most. Because helping government deliver on its promises is a matter of economic justice.
About Code for America
Code for America, a nonprofit founded in 2009, believes that government can work for the people, and by the people, in the digital age. We work with government at all levels across the country to make the delivery of public services equitable with technology. Together with thousands of volunteers across over 80 Brigade chapters in the U.S., we work with community organizations and governments to build digital tools, change policies, and improve programs. Our goal: a resilient government that effectively and equitably serves everyone. Learn more at codeforamerica.org.