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It's likely to be a frustrating tax season, deputy treasury secretary says

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told NPR, "It is going to be, unfortunately, a frustrating tax season" this year.
Greg Nash
The Hill via AP
Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told NPR, "It is going to be, unfortunately, a frustrating tax season" this year.

Updated January 26, 2022 at 1:15 PM ET

This week marks the start of tax filing season, and the Internal Revenue Service is expecting it to be another frustrating one.

Last year, filers faced delays on returns and challenges getting help on the phone, with COVID-19 relief payments and child tax credits complicating matters. In fact, the agency is still working its way through a backlog of millions of 2020 returns.

As NPR has reported, the National Taxpayer Advocate — the IRS' internal watchdog — said earlier this month that in 2021, the agency had a backlog of 35 million returns that required manual processing and taxpayers who called for guidance had only a 1 in 9 chance of getting their calls answered.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told Morning Edition's A Martínez that an understaffed and overworked IRS is bracing for a similarly tough season this time around. For reference, most people have until April 18 to submit their income tax returns.

"It is going to be, unfortunately, a frustrating tax season," Adeyemo said. "What that means for taxpayers is that they need to make sure that they file online, that they take steps to make sure that their returns are prepared, because unfortunately due to the pandemic and chronic underfunding of the IRS, the IRS has fewer people to answer their phone calls and to deal with taxpayer issues."

The IRS blames budget and staffing shortages

Federal funding for the IRS has declined by about 20% in the last decade, according to the National Taxpayer Advocate.

Adeyemo says budget issues, staffing shortages and unreliable technology infrastructure have all made the agency's job more difficult — especially as its workload increases because of the pandemic. It has distributed over 150 million stimulus checks and over 36 million child tax credit payments, he notes.

The IRS received some 119 million calls last year, compared with about 35 million in a typical tax filing season, he adds. Even though the agency is going to put more people on the phones this year, Adeyemo says it simply doesn't have enough resources to meet demand.

"It's important for us to step back and realize that we're in a place where they have as many employees at the IRS today as they had in the 1970s, and they also have a technology infrastructure that was based in the 1960s and 1970s," he says.

Indeed, IRS computers are the oldest major tech systems in the federal government.

There are steps the agency and taxpayers can take to help ease the process

The IRS is asking people to file their taxes electronically if they can and to make sure they have all their paperwork together during the process.

Adeyemo acknowledges that not everyone has internet access to do so and encourages those who need it to go to community Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites for free, low-income tax assistance.

If you file your taxes online and the information is correct, you should get your refund within 21 days, Adeyemo says. That will help the agency reduce its inventory going forward.

The agency has also taken steps to try to ease the load proactively by sending letters to recipients of stimulus checks or child tax credits explaining the numbers they should put in their returns to make sure they're not rejected.

Structural solutions would make future filing seasons run more smoothly

The Biden administration's Build Back Better Act would give the agency an additional $80 billion in funding over 10 years.

Adeyemo says that proposal would bolster the agency in many ways, making future filing seasons easier and even helping to close the "tax gap" between what people owe and what they pay.

That's because it would give the IRS more resources to invest in enforcement toward the wealthy Americans who "have the ability to hire armies of lawyers and avoid taxation."

But, as NPR's Brian Naylor has pointed out, the future of Build Back Better hangs in the balance, and lawmakers have yet to agree on a funding bill for the agency for this fiscal year.

This interview was produced by Ziad Buchh and edited by Steve Mullis.

The digital version of this story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.