This blog post was originally published in the Huffington Post.
If someone told you that you may be one of the more than five million Americans missing out on as much as $6,269 in prize money, you’d almost certainly dismiss it as a fantasy or fraud, right? What if I said that you could get that prize money without paying a dime? It definitely sounds too good to be true, I know.
Fortunately, millions of working families actually can get a significant check from the federal government, thanks to the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). For more than 40 years, the EITC has been, by many accounts, the nation’s most successful anti-poverty program. Last year, it lifted 6.5 million Americans out of poverty, including 3.3 million children, and reduced the severity of poverty for another 21.2 million qualifying workers. Studies show that the tax credit is used by working families to pay for necessary expenses like home and auto repairs and to boost earning power by getting more education. This in turn allows large numbers of single parents to leave welfare for work, saving taxpayers money.
Despite these benefits, more than 20 percent of people who qualify for the EITC fail to claim it. We think that’s because many consumers are never made aware of the EITC due to a lack of reliable, affordable tax preparation resources in their communities.
January 27 is EITC Awareness Day, which is a perfect time to make sure that every American who qualifies for the EITC knows about it. That’s why the National Consumers League is working to promote free tax preparation services like Baltimore’s CASH Campaign, whose volunteers are ready to help educate the one in five workers who are missing out on this benefit. The Baltimore CASH Campaign is one of the 12,000 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs that the IRS relies on to help qualifying individuals prepare and file their taxes, free of charge.
Working families making less than $64,000 per year can also take advantage of free name-brand tax preparation software offered through the IRS’s Free File program. An added benefit of using resources like VITAs and Free File is that they can help taxpayers navigate a new wrinkle this tax season. Because of a new law designed to protect consumers from tax identity fraud, the IRS will hold refund checks until February 15 for consumers claiming the EITC. This is important, because there are likely to be unscrupulous tax preparers who promise they can get EITC-qualified taxpayers their refunds sooner than February 15. In reality, any money a consumer gets before February 15 will probably be in the form of a refund anticipation loan, which comes loaded with predatory fees.
On EITC Awareness Day and throughout this tax season, let’s make sure that the Earned Income Tax Credit gets the credit it’s due. Working families should be able to keep 100 percent of the money they’ve earned. Thanks to programs like VITAs and IRS Free File, they can.