Both at the federal and state levels, tax credits have proved effective policy instruments to combat poverty, and they are at the heart of President Biden’s massive initiative on childhood poverty. However, about one of every five children suffering poverty in the United States has an unauthorized immigrant parent and thus little or no access to tax credits. That is nearly two million children, and 85 percent of them are US citizens. Achieving historic reductions in childhood poverty thus will be impossible without remedying the eligibility exclusions and bureaucratic impediments that unauthorized immigrants face in the US tax system.
All individuals who make money and reside in the United States are obliged to pay federal income taxes via a return filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). For unauthorized immigrants and others who do not qualify for a Social Security Number (SSN) that requires an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In this two-tier system, ITIN filers have the same income tax due as Social Security filers, but they do not receive the same credits. ITIN filers have never been eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and some of their children were excluded from the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in the Trump administration’s 2017 tax bill. Both credits are highly effective anti-poverty programs, providing immediate relief while also incentivizing work and earnings. The tax credits are the critical policy tool in Biden’s American Plan for reducing child poverty, and they would be funded through the budget reconicilation legislation devised by Congressional Democrats in the summer of 2021. As summer drew to a close, ITIN inclusion was beginning to enter the discussion among advocates and legislators about the bill’s detailed provisions.
But eligibility is not the only barrier. Internal government monitors have repeatedly criticized the IRS for heavy-handed and inefficient practices that have placed undue burdens on ITIN taxpayers and that have hindered compliance with the law. The use of ITINs has plummeted in recent years from a high of 4.6 million returns in 2014 to 2.5 million in 2020.
Prompted by the economic losses and the medical toll suffered by unauthorized immigrants during the pandemic and by their newly valued roles as “essential workers,” the federal government and several state governments have taken important steps to lessen the exclusion of ITIN taxpayers. The first federal stimulus package excluded not only ITIN holders but also their family members with SSNs. Congress extended eligibility to members of ITIN households with SSNs for the second and third stimulus checks. Meanwhile, California, Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, Washington, Maine, and Oregon broke with the federal government and made ITIN filers fully eligible for their state EITCs, and as of July 2021 similar measures were under consideration in four other states. Early evidence from California and Colorado suggests that ITIN inclusion could prove a highly effective means of reaching poor children with the benefits of a state EITC.
Child poverty can only be attacked successfully if ITIN households receive equal access to federal and state tax credit programs. This can be accomplished if:
- Congress and state legislatures permit full eligibility for all EITC and CTC programs.
- Congress mandates reforms to the procedures for getting and keeping an ITIN that have been proposed in multiple reports to Congress by the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an internal monitor at the IRS.
- Immigrants’ rights advocates and other civil society organizations, with government support, undertake a multi-year campaign to encourage ITIN application and use.
- The IRS receives funding to support a greatly expanded ITIN program.