The federal government has begun sending billions of dollars in advance child tax credits to families across America. But among refugees in southwest Kansas, a lack of communication about the monthly payments in their native languages is already hindering the rollout.
Congress OK’d the spending of trillions in pandemic relief to resuscitate the economy, part of it directed at lifting tens of millions of children out of poverty.
But money coming in advance child tax credits often doesn’t find its way to refugees in southwest Kansas, or when it does, they’re confused about what’s landed in their mailboxes or checking accounts.
Elama Mohamud, a Somali-American mother of two in Garden City, said people in her community don’t know what to do.
“Some people don’t watch news or they don’t understand the English,” Mohamud said. “So, abruptly, they just get this money, and it’s like, ‘What!?’”
She’s gotten several anxious calls from other people in local Somali and Congolese refugee communities caught off guard by the payments.
“There’s a lot of rumors going around,” Mohamud said. “There’s a lot of confusion here.”
Some of her neighbors are worried the checks could be some kind of scam. Others think the payments might be part of a low-income assistance program that’s separate from their tax returns entirely.
There’s also some confusion about how many monthly payments they’ll receive and if they’ll need to pay that money back at some point.
The payments are an advance on half of the child tax credit that families have historically received after they file their taxes each spring. The monthly payments are scheduled to run from now until December.
The problem, Mohamed said, is that many refugees haven’t seen information from the federal government about the child tax credit in their native languages.
The Internal Revenue Service’s website shows tax information in 20 languages. But Somali, Congolese and several other languages spoken in Garden City aren’t on the list. And the letters that families have received in the mail explaining the advance payments are written only in English and Spanish.
That has left a critical gap in these families’ understanding of a program that’s intended to help them care for their children.
“Most people in the community,” Mohamud said, “they don’t understand what this money is.”
Tower of Babel
This confusion goes well beyond Garden City.
As director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants office in Des Moines, Kerri True-Funk has heard similar questions and concerns from refugee families in Iowa going back to the first round of COVID stimulus checks last year.
She said it points to a larger disconnect that often leaves refugee communities in the dark when it comes to government communications.
“It’s something that we see pretty routinely with both the state and the federal government,” True-Funk said.
While official notices often cover at least a couple of languages spoken among residents, she said it’s common for smaller ethnic groups to fall through the cracks.
Refugee populations also change constantly as new arrivals come from different parts of the world. So the primary languages spoken by refugees in a given town ten years ago might not be the same ones spoken today.
“With the speed at which the federal government works,” she said, “it’s hard for them to keep up.”
The arrival of tax credit payments in Iowa refugee communities has triggered new questions about eligibility.
Some families aren’t getting the full credit they are entitled to, either because they are new to the tax system or because they have a new baby that’s not in the system yet, and don’t know how to sign up. (The IRS website currently states — in English — that families won’t be able to add new dependents for the child tax credit until later this summer.)
But True-Funk said that even if a refugee family realizes they need to register for the money, they often don’t have the resources or the skills to easily navigate the online process on their own.
“The IRS website is not super user-friendly to begin with,” she said. “And then if you don’t have a lot of technological literacy or a good grasp of the written English language, it’s that much more complicated.”
And when government communications and resources don’t reach refugee families in a meaningful way, that often leaves local support organizations to pick up the slack.
In Garden City, Mohamud plans to create her own flyer explaining the advance child tax credit in Somali that she can distribute to neighbors and local businesses. But first, she needs to find answers to her own questions about it.
“I have to understand this clearly,” she said, “before I can tell them anything.”
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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