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Civic Tech Group’s Site Helps People Tap Tax Credits

When researchers at Code for America went looking for ways to help low-income workers stabilize their lives and begin climbing career ladders, they found the biggest need, unsurprisingly, was cash.

by Peter Hall, The Morning Call / July 13, 2020

(TNS) — When researchers at Code for America went looking for ways to help low-income workers stabilize their lives and begin climbing career ladders, they found the biggest need, unsurprisingly, was cash.

They also discovered a pool of money left unclaimed by people who don’t know they’re eligible for tax refunds and credits or simply don’t go after them. With the coronavirus pandemic pushing the income tax filing deadline to Wednesday, the group has used the extra time to get the word out.

“Every year about $10.5 billion is unclaimed by low-income families,” Code for America associate program director Annelise Grimm said. “That’s for folks who have earned those dollars and desperately need them.”

The organization’s research also showed that filing taxes is much harder than it needs to be and that people need access to free and trustworthy help with tax preparation.

“There are a lot of scams out there that say they are free that are not truly free,” Grimm said.

At the start of this year, Code for America launched a free website, GetYourRefund.org, to help more people access the IRS’s free tax preparation service to claim their tax refunds and the earned income tax credit for working families. The credit, along with food stamps, is one the largest government benefits for low- to moderate-income families, providing $63 billion to 25 million workers and families in 2018.

But Code for America, a nonprofit that improves access to government services through technology, estimates nearly 10 million people, including 200,000 in Pennsylvania, who are eligible won’t seek the credit this year.

Graham O’Neill, of Campaign for Working Families in Philadelphia, which provides free tax services through the website, said the reasons people don’t file tax returns range from a belief they don’t earn enough to be eligible for refunds to uncertainty about how to do it and fear of being audited. But for some, it’s the cost of tax preparation.

“I think one of the biggest obstacles is people lack a free professional option for filing their taxes,” O’Neill said.

With free access to certified tax preparers, people can get answers about their tax situation and feel confident that filing a return and requesting credits won’t lead to more expense and hassle later.

Combined with other credits, such as state credits and the federal child tax credit, the EITC can be a significant source of money that helps the working poor with basic needs like transportation and clothing to help them land and keep better jobs, Code for America says.

O’Neill said one of his clients this year received tax credits that added up to nearly $10,000.

“What we really like is the impact it can have on someone’s life, getting them the money they need,” he said.

GetYourRefund.org connects people remotely with free tax preparation assistance from certified preparers through the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. The program’s tax preparers have a better accuracy rate than many paid professional services because they are trained, certified, funded and closely monitored by the IRS, Grimm said.

Initially, the website’s rollout was planned to be small, with only four volunteer groups participating, Grimm said. When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, she said, Code for America realized it needed to quickly scale up the program, not only to make up for the loss of in-person visits to VITA sites, but also to help those who don’t normally need to file tax returns to register with the IRS to receive pandemic stimulus checks.

Code for America estimates 12 million people are at risk for missing out on stimulus payments worth $22 billion.

With 45 VITA sites now enrolled in the pilot nationally, including Campaign for Working Families in Pennsylvania, Code for America has helped about 6,000 people claim refunds and credits.

People who have not filed tax returns for 2016-19 can do so this year. Grimm said she expects a surge before the extended filing deadline Wednesday, but unless people expect to owe money or are filing back taxes for 2016, they can file until Oct. 15 without a penalty.

O’Neill said the website has been a lifeline for his organization, which was forced to close most of its free tax preparation sites during the pandemic. The number of clients it served dropped by more than half, he said.

“We didn’t have any way of working virtually with clients so Code for America came in big for us,” O’Neill said.

Although Campaign for Working Families limited its services to Philadelphia and its suburbs, GetYourRefund.org allows it to serve virtually anyone in Pennsylvania. Families earning less than $66,000 qualify for help through the website.

Barbara M. Vinciguerra runs the VITA program at Moravian College, which was canceled this year because the student volunteers returned home in the middle of the semester. Even without the challenges of the pandemic, GetYourRefund.org would improve the program’s capacity to serve clients.

Meeting with clients in person is difficult, Vinciguerra said, because volunteers and clients must each work around each other’s work or class schedules.

“Having the possibility to do this remotely would be a tremendous benefit. We could probably double the number of returns that we do,” she said.

To use GetYourRefund.org, you need a smartphone or a computer, your tax documents, Social Security card and a government-issued identification card, such as a driver’s license. Users answer questions about their tax situation and upload images of their tax documents, Social Security cards and IDs, plus selfies of themselves holding their IDs next to their faces to verify the person filing the return, Grimm said.

The user is then paired with a tax preparer who completes returns, and calls the taxpayer to discuss and verify them before filing. The process takes five to 10 business days.

©2020 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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