Families who are eligible for the enhanced child tax credit but did not get it automatically — because they didn’t make enough money to file tax returns in previous years — have until Monday to sign up to get the funds.
The simplified tax return website, created by the civil-tech nonprofit Code for America and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, will no longer be available after Nov. 15.
If they apply before the deadline, households earning less than $12,400 (or less than $24,800, if married), could still be eligible for cash payments this year. After Nov. 15, families will have to wait until next year, when they file their 2021 tax return, to claim their child tax credit.
The child tax credit expansion, which was part of the American Rescue Plan passed in March, allows for advance monthly payments totaling $3,600 per year for each child under the age of 6 and totaling $3,000 per year for each child ages 6 through 17. The portal is also a way for new filers to receive any missing stimulus payments.
Christine Cheng, a consultant with the Get My Payment IL Coalition, a group of nonprofits seeking to ensure low-income Illinoisans get their stimulus checks, said the funds are crucial for struggling families with children.
“This is an enormous amount of money that’s going to make a big difference for families, but they have to be enrolled first to see the benefit,” Cheng said.
Cheng said it has been challenging getting the word out to low-income families that they are eligible for benefits even if they are making little or no money. “That was not the case prior to 2021; a family had to earn at least $2,500 to even qualify for some bit of the child tax credit,” Cheng said.
She added that a state-by-state survey showed that 86% of families in Illinois who were receiving advanced monthly child tax credit payments are using the funds for basic needs and education costs.
Cheng said data on how many Illinois residents are missing out on child tax credit payments is not currently available. However, one report from the summer said about 4 million children in low-income families throughout the U.S. were at risk of missing out on the monthly child tax credit payments, if their families did not provide the IRS with the information it needed to issue them.
Cheng said details of the extension of the expanded child tax credit are still being ironed out in Washington; however, it is likely the payments could continue in 2022.
A growing number of voices have been advocating for the extension of the advance child tax credit. One recent report from the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that extending the child tax credit program beyond 2021 could “promote financial stability among vulnerable low- and moderate-income families and have many other long-term economic and noneconomic benefits.”
The report analyzed the impact of a similar tax credit pilot program in Chicago during 2014-15. Participants in the pilot missed fewer work days, decreased their reliance on payday lending by half, and reduced their borrowing from friends and relatives. Researchers said the regular cash payments from the advance child tax credit program could yield similar benefits.
“Recurring tax payments help to fill the gaps that families have with income instability,” said Dylan Bellisle, one of the authors of the U of I report. “Especially for a lot of low- and moderate-income families, we know that many have unstable and unpredictable work schedules, and so their income varies from week to week, month to month. By having some form of recurring benefit, that helps to fill in those gaps.”
He continued, “Given that we know the benefits of [recurring tax credit payments], I would hope that it’s not just a pandemic thing. In terms of how Washington decides, I think that’s a different question.”
Kyrie Kenny-Sumrak, of west suburban Warrenville, said the $600 monthly child tax credit payments — $300 for each of her daughters, who are under five — were helpful to her and her husband after her work hours were cut and her husband’s pay was reduced during the pandemic.
“Diapers and formula and childcare are expensive,” Kenny-Sumrak said, “so having that extra money every month to offset those expenses … has allowed us to be a little more comfortable.”
She added that part of the money pays for dance lessons for her daughters, which allows the family to help local businesses and organizations.
“That’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed seeing — how we can build up our own communities with this child tax credit,” she said.
Kenny-Sumrak is now involved in efforts to get the word out about the benefit, especially to households with little or no income.
“Still file for your taxes, even though it seems silly — you might be putting in a bunch of zeros — but it’s just so helpful to get that money every month,” she said.
For questions on the child tax credit or pandemic stimulus checks, residents can call the Get My Payment Illinois Coalition hotline at 888-553-9777. Signing up for the credit does not affect a household’s eligibility for other federal benefits like SNAP and WIC.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.