Nonprofit and Corporate Partners Band Together to Help Non-filers Get their Stimulus Checks
Written by Arohi Pathak & Rebecca Thompson, Prosperity Now, and Dominique Mann & Jahvita Rastafari, Code for America
Prior to the COVID-19 public health crisis, one-third of U.S. families had no savings at all, and four in ten adults did not have $400 in savings to cover unexpected expenses. Over the last several months, many vulnerable populations have lost jobs and savings, and have exhausted their financial safety nets, pushing too many low-income households closer to the edge of a financial cliff.
Yet there are some glimmers of hope. The CARES Act provided economic relief for American households, in the form of an Economic Impact Payment (EIP) or stimulus checks. Additionally, many low-income households are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC), successful tax credit programs that, when combined, help lift more people out of poverty than any other federal program except Social Security. The EIP, EITC and CTC tax credits are administered through the US tax system.
Every year, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program helps 1.5 million low-to-moderate income households navigate the complexities of the US tax system by engaging thousands of IRS-certified volunteers to provide free tax preparation services. On average, these households earn around $24,000 in annual household income, and a third of them also receive the EITC.
Many VITA sites across the country closed their doors in March because of the COVID-19 public health crisis, leaving almost half of the 1.5 million clients served during a typical filing season without critical tax assistance needed to access tax credits and the EIP. The most vulnerable populations in communities across America were faced with the challenge of filing a return to access vital tax credits and stimulus payments at a time when they needed it most.
“We were interested in whether there was an innovative, scalable technology solution that would be instrumental in efficiently and effectively reaching and serving underserved communities at this critical moment,” said Michael C. George, Program Officer for U.S. Economic Mobility and Opportunity at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Enter Code for America, a nonprofit organization that believes technology at scale and government together can improve people’s lives and help build equitable systems. Code for America built a digital service, called GetYourRefund, to provide free tax help and connect Americans with low income to the VITA program. GetYourRefund started as a small pilot at the beginning of the filing season with four participating VITA programs, but it rapidly expanded and scaled during the pandemic. By providing an online intake process, GetYourRefund.org, which is easily available from mobile phones, reduced significant barriers to the tax preparation process, such as inconvenient in-person requirements. The service helps many non-filers in need of stimulus cash, the EITC, and other tax credits.
“It’s time for people to get the benefits they’ve earned. GetYourRefund helps families claim their earned benefits by building a truly free mobile app — making tax filing simple and easy, as it should be,” said Amanda Renteria, CEO of Code for America. “Too many government systems make it hard for working families to get their benefits. We are using our resources to rectify that kind of economic injustice for millions of Americans.”
COVID-19 brought a unique challenge to the pilot and created a sense of urgency among the VITA field, as in-person tax prep locations shut down for the health and safety of volunteers and clients. The pilot program required scaling to help the 50% of clients who still needed to file a tax return and the estimated 12 million non-filers who would need help registering for the EIP.
Prosperity Now — a national nonprofit intermediary whose mission is to ensure that all Americans, especially people of color, have a clear path to financial stability, wealth and prosperity — stepped in to help. Prosperity Now hosts the Taxpayer Opportunity Network, the national convening body for the VITA program. Through its unique position and deep ties to work in the VITA field, the Taxpayer Opportunity Network supported the expansion of the GetYourRefund pilot to additional VITA partners across the country, and provided key advocacy with the IRS to minimize barriers to participation for both programs and clients.
“As we strive towards racial economic justice, it is imperative that we forge and strengthen strategic partnerships in all areas of our work to ensure low- to moderate-income people of color have equal access to the resources and benefits that enable their full participation in our economy,” said Gary Cunningham, CEO of Prosperity Now.
Like so many others that have responded to the public health crisis by forging partnerships to strengthen the fabric of the American society, Prosperity Now and Code for America, along with our funding partners Citi Foundation, Gates Foundation and Blue Meridian Partners, are partnering to support nonprofit partners in providing free tax prep services to low- and moderate-income households, ensuring that they have a level of financial stability to weather this crisis. “Through this partnership, we are expanding access to VITA services in the most underserved and vulnerable communities, leveraging technology and innovative alternative service delivery solutions to help lift up clients at a time when they are most vulnerable”, said Mindy Tarlow, Managing Director at Blue Meridian Partners.
As the fallout from COVID-19 continues with no apparent end in sight, this innovative effort with a focus on alternative service delivery has already brought relief to thousands of our nation’s most vulnerable families[MG3] . The goal of the partnership is to help more than fifty thousand filers access their EIP and tax credits with relative ease in the coming months. “This unique partnership between the Citi Foundation, Code for America, Prosperity Now, Gates Foundation and Blue Meridian Partners is laying the foundation for making tax assistance services more accessible to underserved communities. Through collaboration and innovation, we are able to provide critical financial lifelines to individuals and families most impacted by COVID-19 and in urgent need of these resources,” said Brandee McHale, Head of Citi Community Investing and Development and President of the Citi Foundation.
Non-filers have just a few more weeks to claim their EIP this year so it is important to spread the word. This partnership alone is not enough to reach everyone who needs our help. We need more partners to step up to carry the message broadly that this service is available, and to volunteer to support those in our respective communities who are in need. You’re invited to join us in our efforts to get money into the hands of the millions of Americans who have yet to receive their stimulus check.
To learn more about how the Taxpayer Opportunity Network supports local VITA programs and the delivery of free tax preparation services in your community, visit: https://prosperitynow.org/get-involved/taxpayer-opportunity-network.
And to spread the word in your community to help more people access their EIP and tax credits with relative ease in the coming month, encourage them to visit www.GetYourRefund.org.