“I was talking to a friend about the virus, and she’s the one who said that I should get a stimulus check. I actually remember arguing about it, I was sure I wasn’t able to get it! I don’t file for taxes, I don’t make enough for that. Everything I heard said you had to file your taxes, and I was sure I wasn’t a part of this.” - Catherine, Chicago
In April 2020, shortly after the CARES Act had been signed into law, guaranteeing economic impact payments (EIPs, a.k.a. stimulus checks) for the vast majority of American households, our New Practice Lab and New America Chicago teams had already begun thinking through the widespread challenges of delivering the funds to millions of Americans. It quickly became clear that Congress and the administration hadn’t fully considered how these dollars would actually reach the people who needed them most. Chief among them, the low-income families who don’t earn enough to file taxes—so-called “non-filers.”
Housing insecurity and lack of access to the internet and banking services—common challenges in low-income communities—delayed or altogether blocked disbursement of payments. Nearly one in three adults with incomes under $30,000 don’t have a smartphone and 44 percent still don’t have internet access. And yet, the process for non-filers to request a check requires internet access. This meant that the poorest Americans, especially those in Black and Brown communities hit hardest by the pandemic, have had to wait the longest to get their checks—and many are still waiting. Without early feedback from the most vulnerable recipients, the IRS’s delivery processes often boxed them out.
New America’s New Practice Lab was an early and vocal advocate for improving delivery of payments. And, to its credit, the IRS took several key steps early on to address delivery concerns, launching new online tools to help families register payment information (a critical step in helping non-filers access their payments) and automating payments for many households. But due to persistent delivery challenges, creative solutions were still needed at the local and national levels to help vulnerable people access their payments.
New America Chicago quickly stood up local solutions in the absence of federal ones. The flaws in the delivery design, and the persistent digital divide, would leave hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans behind. To address the delivery flaws, the team formed the Get My Payment Illinois Coalition with four other local nonprofits—Heartland Alliance, Ladder Up, Economic Awareness Council (BankOn Chicago), and Woodstock Institute—to help the lowest-income Illinoisans receive stimulus checks. In just four weeks, our group launched a website that provides tax and banking assistance to low-income individuals. Working with two adult education experts, we translated complicated tax language into more accessible terms.
In addition to online assistance, our strategy included education and outreach to those without internet access. We tested images and language for billboards and flyers that would resonate with working class residents, and one partner secured hundreds of free Chicago billboards and distributed posters and flyers to food pantries and schools where people still received in-person help. Another project took iPads along to help homeless individuals sign up to receive their stimulus checks, and oversaw mini-grants to 14 nonprofits in areas with low bank and internet access. Our partners also provided tax expertise, including a hotline to help those without internet access get answers from a volunteer tax expert. To date, the coalition has helped over 43,000 people access their stimulus checks.
While New America Chicago and partners focused on improving local delivery, the New Practice Lab continued our research and advocacy with the IRS—informed by realities on the ground in low income taxpayer clinics—to make stimulus checks more widely available. While millions of vulnerable Americans were being left out, for millions more, mistakes in the program’s rollout made tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—a critical support for low-income Americans—impossible to access. If they used the IRS’s “non-filer portal,” households unknowingly fell into a “filing trap,” and sacrificed their often much larger EITC payment. Basically, a single mother of three earning $11,500 would receive a $2,700 stimulus check, but would struggle to claim the $5,186 she was eligible to receive through the EITC program.
To address other delivery issues, New America, the Center for Taxpayer Rights, and the Economic Security Project, called for a set of common-sense technical fixes and direct outreach to families to ensure payments reached those in need. For example, we called for allowing Social Security and Veterans Affairs (VA) beneficiaries to claim dependents through the non-filer portal and receive supplemental payments on a rolling basis through 2020, rather than in a very short window that was announced with little warning and on a tight timeline. We also called for creating a viable and straightforward method for users of the non-filer portal to file 2019 taxes through use of the e-1040-x on an extended timeline. The IRS was ultimately responsive, announcing changes in August to allow for Social Security and VA beneficiaries with minor dependents to claim supplemental payments in 2020, and to address the filing trap. And in September, the IRS announced that 9 million likely eligible low-income Americans who have not yet received the benefit would get a letter encouraging them to take the key steps needed to access it.
The pandemic altered the course of our work, but also gave us the chance to get dollars into the hands of the hardest hit Americans. And it has become clear that the work is far from done. Looking ahead, we believe our continued work on benefits design and implementation will help ensure better delivery of future relief efforts in partnership with federal, state, and local actors. Our deep dive into stimulus checks has opened up new opportunities to support the federal government in considering strategies to pursue user-centered policy design and delivery. And New America Chicago, working with the Get My Payment Illinois Coalition, is focused on building better communication between policymakers and communities to help include vulnerable communities, particularly those caught in the digital divide, in critical relief efforts.