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Puerto Rico residents aren't getting monthly child tax credit payments. That could change soon

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In this Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, photo, Idalis Fernandez walks to her hotel room provided by FEMA with her son Adrian, 2, at the Baymont Inn in Kissimmee, Fla. Vouchers that paid for hotel rooms for Puerto Rican evacuees end Friday, leaving many to find roofs over their heads. 
John Raoux | AP

The enhanced child tax credit has in just a few months lowered child poverty, slashed hunger rates and given millions of families a boost in saving and spending for essentials.

However, residents of Puerto Rico, who are U.S. citizens, haven't seen any of those benefits.

That's because they are not eligible to get the advance monthly payments, which amount to hundreds of dollars per month for families with children.

There are many programs for which residents of Puerto Rico do not enjoy the same level of federal benefits due to the island's status as a U.S. territory, according to Laura Esquivel, vice president of federal policy and advocacy for the Hispanic Federation.

This includes the child tax credit, earned income tax credit, and programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

"All of these facts and statistics about how many children are already being lifted out of poverty because their families are getting this advance payment does not apply to Puerto Rico," Esquivel said.

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The new child tax credit

The American Rescue Plan earlier this year expanded the existing child tax credit, adding advance monthly payments and increasing the benefit to $3,000 from $2,000 for children aged 6 to 17 with a $600 bonus for kids under the age of 6 for the 2021 tax year.

The first half of the credit is being delivered in monthly direct deposits through December, and the second half will come when families file their 2021 tax returns next year. So far, the IRS and Treasury Department have sent out three monthly payments to millions of American families.

Most families in the U.S. that have children are eligible to receive some money from the credit. The full benefit goes to married couples with up to $150,000 in adjusted gross income and single parent families with up to $112,500.

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Even though residents of Puerto Rico were left out of the monthly advance payments, the American Rescue Plan still made improvements to the child tax credit for people in Puerto Rico.

Before the legislation passed, those living in Puerto Rico were only able to claim the credit if they had three or more children. Now, they will get the credit even if they have one child. The full refundability of the credit also applies to Puerto Rico, meaning residents can apply for the benefit even if they have no taxable income.  

Those families that are eligible will get the entire credit in one lump sum at tax time by filing a form 1040.

Payments would help Puerto Rican children now

Though residents of Puerto Rico will eventually get the credit, it isn't helping them now amid their own recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. The island is still also recovering from Hurricane Maria, which struck in 2017.

Nearly 57% of Puerto Rican children were living in poverty in 2019, according to the Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud, a non-profit organization focused on youth on the island. The level of children in poverty jumped to 65% in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. By comparison, the official child poverty rate in the U.S. increased to about 16% in 2020 from roughly 14% in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"[Advance payments] could meet the needs immediately, as opposed to something that can just wait until tax season to get a lump sum payment," said Carmen Isaura Rodríguez, advocacy director for the Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud.

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The credit, and advanced monthly payments, would be particularly helpful for children living with single mothers. Of those in poverty in Puerto Rico, some 75% live in a female-headed household, for which the median income is about $8,800 annually.

"There's definitely a need, and we could se a big reduction in the rate of child poverty in Puerto Rico," Rodríguez said.

Part of the reason that Puerto Ricans aren't getting the monthly payments is that the U.S. left it up to local government to implement the program, as many residents don't file federal income taxes to the IRS, Esquivel explained.

But there is a non-filer portal for U.S. residents who don't file tax returns to sign up for the payments. And, residents of other U.S. territories including American Samoa, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and Northern Marina Islands are eligible for the advance payments.

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What's next

There may be further changes to the child tax credit coming that would specifically help residents of Puerto Rico.

The enhanced child tax credit is only for the 2021 tax year, but Democratic lawmakers plan to extend the credit through 2025 in their $3.5 trillion budget. They are also pushing to keep key changes to the enhanced credit, such as the full refundability and advance monthly payments.

So far, Democrats intend to include making the advance payments available to Puerto Rico residents in the coming years. Of course, legislation is still being written and could change. Democrats plan to pass the budget through reconciliation, a fast-track process that would require all party members to vote in agreement.

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