SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Tax preparers from the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program filed the returns of at least 70 low- and middle-income families and individuals for free on Saturday, February 18 at San Bernardino Valley College. The filing drive was hosted by CalEITC4Me, a statewide campaign which has partnered with VITA to spread awareness about California’s earned income tax credit (EITC).
Festivities included music, food, face-painting and paperwork at the “Tacos and Taxes” event.
“Our working families need a boost,” House Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) of the state’s 31st district told attendees at Saturday’s event. “They need help, and programs like this are so important to make sure they have an opportunity to succeed and advance their families.”
Last year, the new California EITC distributed nearly $200 million to some 377,000 low-income households, according to the chair of the California State Board of Equalization, Fiona Ma. Claimants who submitted their tax returns were credited an average of more than $500, but some taxpayers stand to gain almost $2,700 if they file this year, depending on the size of their families and incomes. Currently, a family of three would have to bring in less than $14,000 a year to qualify for the California EITC.
Ma is currently sponsoring a proposal authored by California Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D–Salinas) that would make it easier to qualify for the credit. Assembly Bill 225 would increase the threshold of eligibility to $21,840, which is equivalent to single year’s earnings at minimum wage.
The state credit has had a significant impact on the livelihoods of working people since lawmakers approved the program in June 2015, according to Ma and others engaged in efforts to encourage more taxpayers to take advantage of the tax credit.
The money often goes toward a family’s necessities like food, shelter, transportation, or clothing for their children, according to Joe Sanberg, the founder of The Golden State Opportunity Foundation, which is the nonprofit behind the CalEITC4me campaign.
“I know ... people are using their California earned income tax credit to create a better life for their families and better, safer homes for their kids,” said Sanberg during Saturday’s filing drive.
A number of those who qualify for the California EITC work part-time while attending universities or community colleges, and will likely use their tax refunds to help fund their educations, according to San Bernardino Valley College board member Frank Reyes. He says the state credit, along with the federal EITC and special tax incentives for college students, can go a long way in paying for expenses like textbooks, tuition, and parking.
Last year, some 67 percent of those who qualified for the California EITC actually filed their taxes, which was an extraordinary result for a brand new program, according to Sandberg. However, the remaining 33 percent of unfiled returns equates to thousands of households that missed out on significant financial assistance.
Every year, billions of dollars in federal refunds go unclaimed nationwide, according to Jerrie Muir, a tax consultant representing the Internal Revenue Service at Saturday’s event. He told New America Media that leftover money just sits with the treasury department and never returns to taxpayers because hundreds of thousands of Americans choose not to file.
Many low-income workers who are exempted from having to submit their taxes say it might not be worth it to go through the hassle of processing their tax information or paying someone else to do it for them. Some people have reported paying as much as $600, according to volunteer tax preparer Enid Hernandez.
However, VITA provides IRS-certified services at absolutely no cost to households that bring in less than $50,000 of income annually. The program accepts both walk-ins and appointments at offices throughout the country, which are open Monday through Saturday. In addition, VITA and CalEITC4Me are planning a number of outreach events and filing drives like “Tacos and Taxes” in the weeks leading up to the April 18 filing deadline.
“There are so many options, why not come and check them out?” says Hernandez.
Ma cautions people to be on the lookout for unscrupulous individuals who may try to cheat them out of their EITC. She says con artists may say they offer free tax assistance to low-income families before charging them part or all of their refund in made-up fees.
Ma and others involved in the CalEITC4me campaign hope to ensure that the money gets to households struggling on a day-to-day basis to cover the cost of living.
“None of us should have to experience financial stress at all times, but 25 percent of California lives in this constant state of economic anxiety,” Sanberg said. “We have to remember that there is something deeper here than the numbers that describe the problems. It’s individual families and human beings.”
More information regarding the California EITC can be found at CalEITC4Me.org. Individuals who would like to schedule an appointment or learn more about tax preparation services can also contact VITA.
Taxpayers who received assistance from VITA on Saturday were keen on maintaining their privacy, which Hernandez said was typical of her clients. However, many refund recipients described themselves as part-time and seasonal workers or retirees, and shared lists of fixed expenses like rent, car payments and food budgets that would consume most of their returns.
They also said volunteers were courteous and knowledgeable, and described their experiences as painless. The process took no more than an hour for most people, many of whom said they were excited and even surprised by the amount of money being refunded to them.
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