Editor's Note: The California Economic Summit network has supported actions that prioritize early learning and child care such as the recommendations of the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Task Force, cross-sector partnerships in high-quality child care and preschool, and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC).
Death and taxes: two things we universally would prefer to avoid. If you didn’t have to file your taxes, would you go ahead and do it anyway? For most of us the answer would likely be a resounding ‘No.’ But what if, by not filing, you were leaving money on the table? Then you might feel differently, especially if you were struggling to make ends meet.
Every year, low-income Californians fail to claim $2 billion from the federal and state governments that could otherwise help them afford life’s basic needs. The earned income tax credit is a federal program that rewards work by putting money back into the pockets of low-income workers if they claim it. The state of California has its own program, the Cal EITC, which adds to this much-needed boost, while offering it to those at the start of their careers (ages 18-24) and those at the end (over 65).
The IRS estimates that nationally one in five people who have earned this credit fail to get it. There are two primary reasons why this happens. The first is that these hardworking people don’t meet the IRS income threshold to require they file a tax return, so they don’t file. In not doing so, they miss out on hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars cash back through the California and federal Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) — money intended to help them meet their basic needs like food, housing, health care, transportation, and education. More broadly, that extra boost can help alleviate some of the chronic stress that occurs living paycheck to paycheck, the silent suffering of working hard but still struggling to get by.
The second reason people don’t file is because most people — including community leaders and organizations — don’t know that the EITCs can be claimed past the April 15 filing deadline and throughout the year. Tax Day is significant for many reasons but it isn’t a deadline that matters for the EITC.
That’s why the fight to end poverty in California using this proven program knows no season. It’s also the reason why the work of Golden State Opportunity and our statewide public outreach campaign, CalEITC4Me, is still in full swing.
Even before April 15, a record number of people claimed the Cal EITC. State figures show that 1.6 million people received $300 million through the state credit, a 42% increase over the same period last year. Those are impressive numbers in our fight to end poverty and increase financial security.
However, estimates peg the total number of Cal EITC eligible Californians at roughly two million, so we must not become complacent in our success to date. That means we still need to reach hundreds of thousands of hardworking Californians to make sure they know about the EITCs, understand their importance, and connect them with free help filing their taxes.
Education and outreach around the EITCs requires extensive work. Each year, close to 85% of Cal EITC recipients are receiving the credit for the first time. That means we have to reach a substantially new and different population every year. To do that, it requires aggressive year-round outreach — not just during tax season — that deploys new technologies and marketing techniques to reach people and build trust in the communities where those newly eligible groups work and live.
Our 'surround-sound' campaign entails an innovative texting program, free tax prep, events, earned and paid media, digital and print materials in seven different languages, a digital calculator to easily determine people’s eligibility, as well as effective coordination with a broad coalition of partners, including nonprofits, community leaders, and elected officials.
Given the extensive research demonstrating the positive impacts the EITC has on health and education outcomes, higher future salaries for the children of recipients, and the economic impact of increased spending in local communities, the return on investment for this increased outreach and EITC uptake is high in the short-term, giving families an immediate boost, and in the long term, helping reduce generational poverty.
We have an incredible program that we know works when it comes to the Cal EITC. Let’s make it work for more people, and local economies, by continuing to reach the folks who can benefit the most from the Cal EITC after Tax Day and throughout the year.
Josh Fryday is president of CalEITC4Me.