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How can we better connect low-income families to their stimulus payments?

Project Summary

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government disbursed a range of income-based stimulus payments, including an expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), via the tax system. But people whose income fall below the tax filing threshold– so-called “non-filers” – are at risk of missing out on these critical antipoverty benefits. In a series of randomized evaluations, we tested methods of increasing claiming of the CTC and other economic impact payments among likely non-filers in California. These findings will contribute to our understanding of the barriers individuals face to accessing government programs, and inform policymakers’ efforts to reach the hardest-to-reach populations.

Why is this issue important?

In order to offset the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the US government allocated an unprecedented amount of funding to direct economic impact payments (also called stimulus payments). In order to disburse these payments quickly and efficiently, they relied on the tax system. People who had not filed their taxes in prior years, however, were left out–unless they proactively claimed their payments through separate channels established for “non-filers.” There is extensive evidence that informational, logistical, and psychological barriers can deter people from interacting with government programs–even when they stand to benefit from doing so. Understanding these barriers, and how to reduce them, is critical for connecting low-income Americans with vital services and programs such as the economic impact payments.

What are we doing?

In collaboration with California Policy Lab (CPL), the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), and Code for America (CfA), we are designing and conducting three randomized evaluations to test methods of increasing take-up of the CTC and other economic impact payments among likely non-filers in California. In Fall 2021, we tested the impact of messaging language and modality among approximately 430,000 low-income families who had not filed their taxes in 2018 or 2019. In Spring 2022, we evaluated the effect of targeted text messaging (relative to mass outreach), as well as different message content, among approximately 235,000 low-income families across California. A third round of outreach and an associated evaluation is planned for Fall 2023.

What have we learned?

In our first evaluation, conducted in Fall 2021, we found that sending informational voice messages and emails both significantly increased the submission of tax returns from Californians identified as likely non-tax filers. We did not find significant differences in filing behavior based on the email message content Californians received: email messages that emphasized the simplified filing process slightly increased return initiations and submissions compared to email messages that emphasized that tax credits belong to recipients (psychological ownership), but these differences were small and inconclusive.  

What comes next?

Two additional evaluations were conducted in Spring 2022 and Fall 2022. Results from these evaluations are expected in early 2024. Taken together, these findings will inform policymakers’ efforts to find and connect the hardest-to-reach populations with government programs.


  • California Department of Social Services
  • California Policy Lab
  • Code for America


2021 - Present


  • Field experiment
  • Administrative data analysis



Policy Area

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