Connecting Families to the Expanded Child Tax Credit: What We Learned

In the fall of 2021, the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN) and Partnership for America’s Children came together to launch a national Child Tax Credit (CTC) outreach project. We joined this project as Child Tax Credit Outreach Coordinators, bringing our prior experience in community organizing and outreach. We had spent years working with many of the same communities with which we sought to connect through our CTC outreach. This previous experience and the relationships and expertise that CHN and the Partnership had built through past work together, helped us reach families across the country. 

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 expanded the CTC to include families with no income. It increased the amount of the credit and made it “fully refundable,” allowing families without tax obligations to get the full amount of the credit. While millions of families automatically received monthly advance payments from the IRS in 2021, families whose incomes were usually below the filing threshold and therefore did not regularly file tax returns, were required to take extra steps to get their money. This was because without up-to-date information, the IRS could not automatically send payments to these new or intermittent filers, leaving millions of children in families with no or low income at risk of missing out on the credit. Through our outreach, we supported trusted institutions and community partners in helping families claim the 2021 expanded CTC. Please read below for lessons learned through our efforts to reach these families. 

What worked well?

A two-pronged approach

We found that it was effective to pursue a two-fold strategy of 1) high-volume outreach through school districts and government agencies, and 2) deeper engagement of trusted community partners. 

Large entities, like public benefits agencies, have the capacity to reach tens of thousands of families at once and have consistently been shown to be especially effective messengers for communicating with families about the CTC. After reviewing the results of their simplified filing website in 2021, Code for America noted that “direct messages from benefits agencies (or adjacent groups) to their beneficiaries were the single easiest way to efficiently reach new non-filers and successfully get them to claim their tax benefits.” This aligned with our findings from focus groups we conducted about the CTC in 2021. Simplified filing – which provided an easier and quicker way for families to claim the CTC – meant that many individuals could claim the credit on their own. For these filers, outreach was important to alert them to the CTC and how to claim it, but they did not require assistance claiming the credit. By simply sending out messages, agencies and schools could get tens of thousands of dollars to families. Critically, agencies could communicate broadly with individuals at risk of missing out on the expanded CTC, including WIC, SNAP, and TANF clients, among others.

For this reason, we invested in developing ready-to-use multilingual text, email, and robocall templates and flyers that agencies and schools could share with families –  ideally more than once. We encouraged school districts and school groups to conduct CTC outreach, and developed short, pre-recorded trainings to highlight successful examples of school outreach. We joined with partners to encourage the IRS to conduct outreach at scale to individuals at risk of missing out on the credit, because we know that families trust the IRS to provide accurate information about taxes and that the agency can communicate with millions of families. This outreach was tremendously important in reaching a large number of individuals, many of whom then took immediate steps to claim the CTC on their own.

While we invested in agency and school outreach, we recognized that this approach alone was insufficient. Many families faced a range of challenges in claiming the CTC, including a lack of multilingual information, limited comfort with technology, and concerns about immigration, tax filing, and more. Even among families that were aware of the expanded CTC, we encountered individuals who anticipated challenges in filing, had questions, and needed extra support. This is why we offered trainings, resource toolkits, and multilingual materials to community partners that work directly with families, including community health workers, child care providers, home visiting staff, social workers, and organizations working in immigrant communities, among others. The “question and answer” segments during these trainings often proved to be incredibly dynamic. We routinely learned from new questions we fielded, and were able to incorporate them into our resources and future trainings, in which they invariably came up again. This deeper outreach to trusted community partners, who could in turn directly connect with families in their networks, was a critical aspect of our project. 

We engaged in a constant conversation about both approaches: higher-volume outreach through large entities and deeper outreach through community partners. And we refined our resources and trainings as we went in order to effectively carry out each strategy. We were fortunate to work closely with a number of partners engaged in one or both of these outreach approaches. Together, we were able to provide the necessary resources, training, and direct support.

Partnership between two national organizations and many member groups

This collaboration between the Coalition on Human Needs and the Partnership for America’s Children opened the door to an incredibly diverse network of organizations across the country. While we developed many new relationships through our outreach, we were also fortunate to build on long-standing partnerships and previous work. We often approached outreach through both national networks and local contacts. For example, as we partnered with a national education organization to send out communications to school leaders, we also worked with community partners to get in touch with local school districts. Through the CHN – Partnership collaboration, we were able to connect with a wide range of social and economic justice groups, including organizations supporting survivors of domestic violence, groups working with military families and veterans, child welfare agencies, networks of school leaders, recreational and out-of-school time programs, faith-based service providers, early education associations, networks of social workers, anti-hunger organizations, promotora and community health worker networks, state children’s advocacy organizations, programs serving migrant families and workers, disability justice organizations, and agencies working within the criminal legal system, among others. Where possible, we identified national networks of community-based providers, like community health workers. These networks provided us opportunities to share resources and training directly with these individuals on a national scale.

Multilingual resources and trainings that met partners’ diverse needs

We provided resources in 11 languages. While we found that it was important to include certain key messaging in outreach materials – addressing eligibility and common concerns – we recognized that no amount of well-researched messaging would matter if it was not available in the language(s) a family understands. We also recognized that there are many staff and volunteers who interact with families – including promotoras and home-based child care providers, among others – who might prefer to participate in CTC trainings in Spanish, and so provided many of our trainings, including all of our largest sessions, in both English and Spanish.

Early in our project, we created resource toolkits and “menus” of outreach options so that partners could identify strategies that would work best in their programs and communities, and then use the resources they found most helpful. The toolkits were helpful to many community organizations and provided somewhere individuals could find resources from our many partners, including information about tax filing and other tax credits. We learned quickly however, that partners often preferred to receive “curated” sets of resources for their given community and to learn about two or three easy actions they could take right away. Narrowing down our “asks” and providing the specific resources that partners needed to take these actions, helped us more easily engage partners in outreach. 

Ultimately, among the most-requested resources were multilingual flyers, sample text and email messages, and social media content. While some partners printed resources, many used the flyers digitally, including through schools’ digital flyer platforms or bulletins. For those partners that preferred to provide printed resources, it was important to make available electronic resources in black and white in case these organizations had budget constraints and could not print en masse in color. We also found that it was helpful to have fully customizable flyers and other resources, which allowed organizations to add in additional language translations and organization-specific logos and contact information. 

We organized a number of national webinars that brought together hundreds of community partners to learn about the CTC and how they could help families claim it. While our webinars all included foundational information about the CTC, we made sure that they always had something new for the audience. This was especially important for providers with heavy caseloads and limited time. During webinars, we provided the latest updates about the CTC, reviewed tax filing options relevant at the moment, and featured guest speakers who shared their experiences with CTC outreach. We were fortunate to work with partners on our largest webinars, including our most recent webinar, which we co-hosted with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Code for America, and Prosperity Now. Collaborating with these partners allowed us to provide a greater breadth of information to attendees.

What common concerns did we encounter among new and intermittent filers? How did we address these concerns through our outreach and resources?

Through focus group conversations conducted in collaboration with Lake Research Partners and in ongoing conversation with community partners, we identified a number of challenges to ensuring all eligible individuals claimed the CTC. These included, among others: 

  • Many people who did not typically file tax returns because they were not required to do so did not realize that they were eligible and in fact, needed to file tax returns in order to claim this credit. Many individuals also did not understand that the credit was fully refundable– that it would be paid to them in full even if they owed no taxes.
  • People were concerned about the ramifications of filing tax returns now if they had not done so in previous years. They were worried that they may get in trouble for not having filed previously and/or that they may owe money to the IRS. 
  • There was confusion about the 2021 “advance” CTC payments, which were distributed as monthly payments between July and December 2021. People associated the word “advance” with a loan, and were concerned they may need to pay back the credit. Based on their experiences with other public benefits, many people were also concerned that they would receive the money, budget accordingly, and then ultimately have to pay it back if their circumstances changed or if the IRS had made a mistake in paying it to them.
  • There was concern that the CTC would impact families’ access to other public benefits.
  • We heard from individuals who were unsure of what to do if the credit was claimed by another adult who did not in fact live with the child.

We incorporated these above-mentioned concerns into our resource toolkits and trainings, including in a “Frequently Asked Questions” resource available in English and Spanish. We addressed common concerns in trainings with community partners so they could be prepared for these questions when working directly with families. While we provided answers to commonly-asked questions, we also emphasized that community partners did not have to be tax experts. This was important given our focus group findings that some partners felt anxious sharing information about the CTC, because they were not tax experts and did not want to give inaccurate information to families. An important element of our trainings and our resource toolkits, was providing suggested referrals (like Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites and Low Income Taxpayer Clinics) that partners could share with individuals if they needed support filing, had questions, or had a tax dispute with the IRS and needed more intensive support.

Immigrant families were among those most at risk of missing out on the credit, and we routinely fielded questions from those working with immigrant and refugee communities. We took a number of specific actions to best equip trusted messengers to support immigrant families, including:

  • Providing resources and training to organizations that were especially well-situated to reach immigrant communities, including networks of community health workers, a migrant education program, and an organization working with farm workers, among others
  • Providing outreach resources in 11 languages
  • Offering several trainings to families in Spanish
  • As noted above, regularly providing simultaneous Spanish interpretation on large webinars in order to reach trusted community-based providers who conduct their work primarily in Spanish 
  • Sharing resources on common topics among immigration filers, including Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs), the impact of CTC receipt on Green Card processes, etc.

Ideas for the future

Our outreach project was 15 months long. Given the cyclical nature of tax filing, a multi-year or permanent tax credit outreach project would better enable an outreach team to incorporate lessons learned into the next tax filing season. While Congress has allowed the expanded CTC to lapse, families have until 2025 to claim it if they have not done so already, and many organizations continue to advocate for CTC expansion. 

Over the course of multiple years, an outreach team could deepen community organizations’ engagement in this work. It could support local partners in building annual tax credit outreach plans, so that this work could become an anticipated part of yearly organizational calendars and be effectively combined with other community outreach and communications. These longer-term outreach partnerships could also provide opportunities to build a robust story bank of narratives from community partners and families on the impact of the CTC across the country, and perhaps further help to bring more local voices into the advocacy side of this work. 

Finally, a multi-year outreach project could allow an outreach team to support community partners in developing creative partnerships to expand tax filing capacity. This could look like working with organizations to recruit VITA volunteers for existing tax preparation sites, strengthening relationships between local VITA sites and community organizations to make the referral process straight-forward and ensure filers show up with all the information they need, and potentially, launching new tax filing sites in familiar community locations, like health care settings and community organizations.

How are the lessons learned from Child Tax Credit outreach applicable to other contexts? 

While the focus of our outreach project was on the expanded Child Tax Credit, we are confident that aspects of the lessons we learned could prove relevant in other contexts, including outreach to families about state-level tax credits (especially as states enact more state-level credits), the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program, and upcoming changes in the Medicaid program once the pandemic emergency ends and families need to reapply. Many of the same people who were unaware that they could claim the expanded CTC or faced barriers in doing so, are likely to benefit from outreach around these other programs. While different outreach contexts would require specific considerations, much of what worked in our CTC outreach – our two-pronged approach, working with diverse community partners, and the availability of multilingual resources and trainings, among others – would also be important in other outreach projects. It would additionally be valuable to consider possibilities for integrating outreach around multiple programs, particularly if the target audience and messengers are the same.