Tax Help for People Who Miss Out on a Valuable Credit

Working families can benefit from a federal tax credit intended to put cash in their pockets. But millions of eligible people miss out on the rebate, known as the earned-income tax credit, because they don’t file tax returns.

Now, a technology-oriented nonprofit organization, working with a longtime volunteer tax preparation program, aims to help more eligible people get the credit by simplifying free, remote tax preparation for them.

Code for America, which works with government agencies and community organizations on technology issues, began working last year with groups participating in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, known as VITA, to help eligible people submit tax returns and claim the credit.

VITA sites offer free tax preparation by volunteers trained and certified by the Internal Revenue Service. The I.R.S. helps to fund some sites with annual grants. VITA help is generally available to people earning $57,000 or less. The initiative began more than 50 years ago, and its preparers typically receive high marks for accuracy. About 1.6 million tax returns were filed through VITA sites in 2018, according to the I.R.S.

About five million potentially eligible people fail to claim the earned-income tax credit annually, according to a report from the Tax Policy Center. Some people have incomes so low that they aren’t required to file a return but may not realize they must do so to claim the credit. Others do file returns but don’t claim the credit because of its complexity.

“Tax forms are confusing,” said Amanda Renteria, chief executive officer of Code for America.

The money is a boon for low-income families. The average credit for a family with children was about $3,200 in 2017, and research suggests families mostly use the money to cover basic needs, repair homes and cars, and get training to boost their job prospects.

In 2020, as part of efforts to get more people to file for the credit, Code for America teamed up with dozens of VITA programs in 31 states to test a new digital tax preparation service called Get Your Refund. It expects to work with about 100 partners in the upcoming tax season, Ms. Renteria said.

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The trial was initially intended for a handful of locations, she said. But it expanded quickly in the pandemic. Most VITA sites had stopped offering in-person help, and many people who hadn’t recently filed tax returns had to register on a special I.R.S. website to get their $1,200 pandemic relief payments.

The need for remote assistance was intense, Ms. Renteria said. In all, about 1,000 volunteers helped 30,000 people file tax returns via Get Your Refund, Code for America reported, with those filers getting an estimated $62 million in refunds, including tax credits and the stimulus payments.

Courtney O’Reilly, director of Tax Help Colorado, a VITA participant that worked with Code for America in 2020, said that even without a pandemic, traditional VITA sites might not always be convenient for working families. People may be unable to take time off work to visit the location, and they may have to wait in line.

“Free doesn’t always mean accessible,” Ms. O’Reilly said.

Two years ago, the group started looking for ways to reach more families eligible for the earned-income tax credit, she said, and has found the Get Your Refund platform helpful.

Using the Get Your Refund website or mobile app, filers can verify their identities and upload tax documents, then talk to a volunteer who will prepare their return, all without meeting with someone in person. The one-on-one help is crucial. Research by Code for America and others has found that telling people about the tax credit isn’t enough by itself to get them to claim it. People are often intimidated by the required tax information and may need help to complete the forms.

Here are some questions and answers about the earned-income tax credit:

How does the earned-income tax credit work?

Credits are subtracted from the amount that you owe in taxes. The earned-income tax credit is “refundable,” which means that if a family’s credit is more than it owes in taxes, the excess is paid out as a refund.

The amount of the credit varies based on your income, family size and filing status. For the tax year 2020, the credit is available for filers earning up to about $57,000. The maximum credit is $6,660.

What if my income dropped in 2020 because of the pandemic?

The latest round of federal pandemic relief addressed this situation. When you file your tax return for 2020, you will be able to use the income you earned in 2019 to qualify for the earned-income tax credit, as well as for the refundable portion of the child tax credit, if it results in larger credits. Generally, the amount of your credits increases as your earnings rise, up to the maximum allowable credits.

When does tax filing season begin?

The I.R.S. usually starts accepting tax returns in late January. People claiming the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit typically file early. By law, as a fraud-prevention measure, the I.R.S. doesn’t pay out tax refunds for returns claiming the credits before mid-February.

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