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Gene Sperling speaks during an event at the White House

Gene Sperling speaks during an event on February 20, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Top Biden Aide Under Fire for Blaming Poor for Not Receiving Relief Checks

Gene Sperling's disparagement of "this population of parents" came as the White House launched a child tax credit program that experts warn will exclude millions of the poorest families due to basic design flaws.

Jake Johnson

A top economic adviser to President Joe Biden faced backlash Thursday for suggesting that poor parents are at fault for not receiving previous rounds of federal relief payments, comments that came as the White House officially launched an expanded child tax credit program that critics say could exclude many of the most vulnerable families due to basic design flaws.

"The hard news is this population of parents let three stimulus payments sit on the ground," Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to Biden who previously served as head of the National Economic Council, told the Washington Post in an interview.

"The government left this work to nonprofits and volunteers, which means they are choosing to leave behind millions of the kids who would benefit the most."
—Annie Lowrey, The Atlantic

"This is a hard population to reach; in the worst of times, you’ve offered thousands of dollars, and they have not signed up," the White House official added.

Sperling was referring to the millions of people across the United States who, because of their low income level, are not required to file tax returns, and thus often do not have information on file with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—the agency that sent out past relief checks and is now tasked with administering the boosted Child Tax Credit (CTC) payments.

Touted by the White House and analysts as the largest anti-poverty program in decades, the enhanced CTC is designed to distribute to eligible families monthly checks of $300 per child under the age of six and $250 per child aged six or older. The expanded portion of the CTC, approved by Congress in March, begins to phase out at $75,000 in annual income for single filers and $150,000 for couples.

Before Congress passed the expansion, families with no earnings or insufficient income were not eligible for the CTC, which originated in the Clinton years.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly cited estimates indicating the boosted CTC could cut child poverty in half. The problem is that such projections assume the payments will reach nearly 100% of eligible poor families—which policy experts and community groups have warned is highly unlikely, given the program's shortcomings.

Matt Bruenig, founder of the People's Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, has argued incessantly in recent months that running the expanded CTC through the IRS is foolish, given the number of poor families who do not file taxes. As the Post's Jeff Stein noted Thursday, "Although roughly 10 million children are in poverty, approximately 7 million children belong to households that are eligible for the payments but do not file income taxes, meaning they are at risk of being missed for the payments."

In a blog post in May, Bruenig argued that the IRS "has no way of reaching kids in non-filing tax units and no one has produced a plausible story of how they will do so."

"Filing taxes is complicated and the poorest of the poor cannot afford to pay a third-party preparer to do it for them," Bruenig wrote. "Even people who have the ability to file taxes may not be aware of the program or may be confused by the idea of 'filing taxes' when they have no income to report."

Unsurprisingly, Bruenig—who has maintained that an ideal monthly child benefit program would be run through the Social Security Administration, not the IRS—was among those who slammed Sperling's remarks on Thursday.

"Love this attitude from Gene," Bruenig tweeted sardonically. "We did the same thing three times—threw up a complicated website with a complicated process for non-filers to access these benefits—and it worked badly all three times. So we went ahead and did it again and it also worked badly. Not our fault though!"

The website Bruenig alluded to is a non-filer tool that the IRS rushed to stand up last year amid concerns that many eligible families would miss out on direct stimulus payments.

Last month, the IRS launched a similar online tool for the expanded CTC. Critics, including Bruenig, wasted no time spotlighting the website's many glaring flaws, including its lack of a mobile option—a major problem for poor families without reliable access to a computer—and its English-only design.

"There is a digital divide," Jennifer Burdick, supervising attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, told the Post in a recent interview. "Many low-income people do not have access to laptops or Wi-Fi. Smartphones are the most pervasive way that people connect to the Internet. The whole point of this portal is to make filing as accessible as possible, so I'm a little bit baffled that this very large step wasn't taken."

"I am disappointed that the IRS did not learn any lessons from the problems with the non-filer's portal last year," Burdick added. "This portal is still not mobile-friendly. And I think that's a huge access point. It's still only in English."

Sperling admitted that the IRS non-filer portal is difficult to navigate and said the administration "must stay at it and work smarter and harder to get more people signed up." The IRS is utilizing available banking information from other federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration, to ensure that some non-filers receive the CTC payments automatically.

But observers have warned for months that while the expanded CTC will be enormously helpful to countless struggling families—the Treasury Department said Thursday that households including nearly 60 million children will soon see payments in their bank accounts—the Biden administration is not doing enough to ensure that the poorest people in the country receive the benefits to which they are entitled under law.

The Atlantic's Annie Lowrey wrote Wednesday that "with the federal government doing little to reach families" who may be unaware of the enhanced CTC or unsure of how to receive the payments, "nonprofits and community groups—legal-aid societies, volunteer tax preparers, places of worship, child-care centers, food banks, homeless shelters, and community-organizing groups such as the Maine People's Alliance—have stepped in."

"Advocates are particularly worried about families experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and those without internet access or a bank account," Lowrey noted. "They also worry about families in which a parent is incarcerated, has a language or literacy challenge, is sick or disabled, or has a different immigration status than their kid."

In a tweet responding to Sperling's comments Thursday, Lowrey wrote that "the government left this work to nonprofits and volunteers, which means they are choosing to leave behind millions of the kids who would benefit the most."

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