IRS-certified tax preparer Paul Mullin, standing, offers assistance at the University of Maine at Farmington while Western Maine CA$H Coalition volunteers assist clients with filing their taxes for free. The service will be offered virtually this year due to the pandemic. Photo Courtesy of the United Way of the Tri-Valley Area

REGION — Is access to filing taxes an economic justice issue? According to the organization Code for America that designed the free tax filing service getyourrefund.org, connecting people with reliable, trustworthy tax preparers is a vital step towards financial stability.

Code for America is a national organization that focuses on improving the access gap between government programs and benefits and those that qualify for them through technology. Annelise Grimm, Associate Program Director at Code for America, explained that helping people claim often overlooked tax credits provides essential funds for securing reliable, living wage work.

“We launched a big, year-long process to figure out what’s a way we could use technology and design to help people find and keep living wage jobs, and the thing that we learned is actually before people can take advantage of job programs, before they can really hold down an entry-level position in order to be able to advance in their careers, they need to have a basic level of financial stability and flexible cash is the best way to get them that financial stability,” Grimm said in a Zoom interview.

The study showed that if people had some reserve funds to tackle spontaneous problems such as a child care emergency or a transportation issue, it prevented them from the cascading effects of these problems and potentially losing their job.

It’s really an economic justice issue for people to have just a basic level of stability from which they can build into their future,” Grimm said. 

The next step in this study was to identify a way to get this flexible cash through an already existing government program into the pockets of their target demographic, the nation’s workforce. That’s when the organization found that one in five households claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which adds up to about $10.5 billion of annual unclaimed funds.

The Intenal Revenue Service (IRS) has a free tax preparation service, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), to help qualifying individuals file their taxes and claim benefits. However, Code for America found that few people were accessing VITA services and conducted another study to find out why.

“The short answer to that is the process is just way too complicated and it’s really exclusionary in the people who need these services the most aren’t able to make it through this really complicated web of services that you need to navigate in order to file your taxes,” Grimm said.

The organization identified a couple of additional, consistent factors as to why people weren’t filing and claiming tax credits such as EITC. Those with low incomes and are not required to file often do not realize that they still qualify for tax credits. Through research, Code for America also found that emotional hardship directly impacted the likelihood of a person filing for taxes.

“Someone going from a 40-hour-week steady job with a solid paycheck and one W-2 suddenly having a new work situation where they’re working four different gig work jobs, and they’ve got a bunch of 1099s and it’s hard for them to track down all of the documents, it becomes really hard for them to file their taxes,” Grimm said.

 Additional identified emotional hardship factors included losing a loved one who did the household tax filing. 

To expand VITA’s accessibility, Code for America launched getyourrefund.org two years ago, offering free tax filing services by partnering a filer with a local tax preparer. The service provides local organizations with the technology and platform support for volunteer tax preparers. In Franklin County, getyourrefund.org matches filers with volunteers at Western Maine CA$H (Creating Assets, Savings & Hope) Coalition and the United Way of the Tri-Valley Area.

To begin the process, a filer goes to getyourrefund.org, answers some basic household questions and uploads identify information and pictures of tax documents. The filer is then matched with a local, community-based organization. The volunteer preparer takes an initial look over uploaded documents and then schedules a phone call with the filer. The preparer then prepares the filer’s taxes which are double-checked by a quality reviewer. The volunteer preparer then schedules a second call with the client and provides a way to sign the tax return and submit it to the IRS.

If uploading documents is an issue, the United Way is offering a scan service at their office at 218 Fairbanks Road in Farmington. Filers can either sign up to be matched with a local tax filer at www.getyourrefund.org/westrnme or by calling United Way at 778-7954. The United Way and the CA$H Coalition is offering tax filing services until April 30, but Grimm said that getyourrefund.org will still offer filing services until October.

“May 17 is the extended tax deadline but for the majority of people who are expecting to get a refund of some kind especially people who haven’t accessed the stimulus or might be eligible for the EITC or child tax credit, really they can continue to file without any  significant penalty until October 15,” Grimm said. “And we’ll be working really hard to keep up our capacity on getyourrefund to be able to continue to serve people until then.”

The website also offers a live chat to help people troubleshoot throughout the filing process and a filer can be matched with a preparer based on language needs. The site also offers a service to help people backfile their taxes up to three years. 

Grimm also noted that stimulus payments are based on tax code, adding to the incentive to file taxes this year and previous years.

 

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