“[The Earned Income Tax Credit] has met my basic needs, helped me pay my property tax, get caught up on utilities, buy a winter coat, and allowed me to make a deposit so my son could go to college. … the EITC has given me more dignity.”
– A mother from Sunnyside, New York
“I qualified for $4,300 in Earned Income Tax Credit refunds from my taxes this year. The money is going to student loans, credit card bills and school supplies. I rely on this money to make it every year.”
– Anna of Littleton, Colorado; mother and graduate student
Today is Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day, a national day of grassroots action to highlight this life-changing credit.
Every year millions of low-income working families like Anna’s will claim the earned income tax credit. Born in 1975 to offset some of the effects of regressive payroll taxes, the earned income tax credit has grown to become one of the federal government’s most successful and effective antipoverty programs.
Strengthened several times since its inception by presidents on both sides of the aisle, the credit has historically enjoyed bipartisan support and has a long track record of helping working families make ends meet. Most taxpayers claiming the credit often do so for two consecutive years or less and end up paying billions more in net federal income tax than they receive in the earned income tax credit over time. To date nearly half of all states have created state earned income tax credits, which build on the success of the federal credit. Last year the credit served nearly 27 million people with nearly $59 billion in total credits.
Working taxpayers, both married and unmarried, with and without children, are eligible for the credit as long as they meet certain requirements, including those for age and earned income.
What’s more, the credit is refundable, which means that even if an eligible family does not owe federal income tax in a given year, they can still claim the full value of the credit (all families pay other forms of taxes, such as payroll taxes, federal excise taxes, or state and local sales taxes). The average credit in 2011 was $2,240.
In the spirit of the day, here are the three things you need to know about the earned income tax credit this year and how you can protect the tax credits that make such a difference for families nationwide:
The earned income tax credit lifts families out of poverty and supports our economy
This credit is a critical component of the social safety net. We’re living in a time where more people are living in poverty in this country than ever before—more than 46 million Americans are living below the poverty line, with women and communities of color bearing the brunt. Low- and moderate-income families are facing foreclosure or are seeing the value of their home decline. Low-wage jobs don’t pay enough to support a family and don’t include important benefits like paid sick leave, workplace flexibility, or opportunities to save for the future.
Safety-net programs like the earned income tax credit are increasingly important in these dire times. Last year the earned income tax credit lifted 6.6 million people, including 3.3 million children, out of poverty.
The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program can also help low-income adults and families keep more money in their pockets. Through this program eligible taxpayers (typically those earning less than $50,000) can have their taxes prepared free of charge by volunteers at sites in communities across the country. The program helps reduce reliance on paid preparers and predatory financial products like refund anticipation loans, which are high-interest loans taxpayers can purchase for the amount of their expected refund. Such loans can trap families in a dangerous cycle of debt and undermine their economic security.
The earned income tax credit can also help boost the economy during recessions and periods of slow growth. Cash-strapped states facing devastating budget cuts and layoffs see an economic boost from the credit. When low-income families receive their refund check, they purchase groceries, child care, school supplies, and more, increasing demand for the goods and services of local businesses, which ultimately benefits the economy as a whole. In fact, economists suggest that for every earned income tax credit dollar received by low- and moderate-income families, an economic benefit of $1.50 to $2.00 is generated in the local economy.
In states with a high proportion of low-wage jobs, the earned income tax credit can make a big impact. In Texas, for example, more than 2.5 million people claimed the credit in 2011, and nearly $6.5 billion was brought into the state last year to flow back into local economies.
Recent policy changes expanded and improved the credit
In 2009 Congress recognized the need to make the tax code work better for working families and made significant improvements to the earned income tax credit.
To reflect the cost of raising an additional child, Congress increased the credit for families with three or more children, allowing them to claim up to an additional $600 annually. Prior to that change, families with three or more children would receive the same credit as those with two children.
Congress also took steps to lessen the “marriage penalty,” a consequence of the then-current law that caused low-income workers who married to lose some of their benefits.
As a result of these changes, the families of 13.5 million children were either made eligible for the earned income tax credit or saw an increased credit, according to Tax Policy Center estimates.
As part of these tax reforms, Congress also expanded eligibility for the child tax credit, an important tax credit that helps families cover some of the cost of raising children by allowing families to count more of their income in calculating the credit.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the changes to the earned income tax credit and child tax credit kept 1.6 million people out of poverty.
Finally, the IRS recently created a simple tax form to promote asset building among all families. Form 8888 allows families to directly deposit their refunds into their checking or savings accounts, purchase savings bonds, and split refunds between bank accounts.
Low-income families have much at stake in the tax fight later this year
Unfortunately, the changes to the earned income tax credit and child tax credit made a few years ago are set to expire at the end of this year, leaving hardworking low-income families with a lot on the line. If Congress fails to make these changes permanent or extend them, we will turn the clock backwards.
Without their expanded earned income tax credit, more families could slip into poverty as they struggle to make ends meet with less. Low-income families use their credit to pay down medical bills, ward off eviction and homelessness, and save for their children’s future. With a diminished credit, struggling families will be forced to make up the difference—potentially putting their health, their economic security, or their child’s wellbeing at risk.
To offset some of the cost of the likely deal to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance for the rest of the year, House Republicans are proposing to restrict eligibility for the refundable child tax credit to only those with social security numbers. Historically, families with Individual Tax Payer ID Numbers have been eligible for the credit. This move would unfairly target low-income immigrant families, who use Individual Tax Payer ID Numbers to file and pay federal taxes because they don’t have social security numbers.
These attacks on the safety net and the tax credits that help families make ends meet are likely just a preview of what’s to come later this year as we near the expiration of these improvements and the Bush tax cuts in December 2012.
That’s why it’s critical to start building the public and political will in support of these transformative tax credits today.
What you can do
This Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day, take a stand for hardworking families like Stephenie’s, whose credit helped her catch up on her rent and pay her bills.
One way to help is to send us your story about how tax credits help you, your family, or your community.
With one in five eligible taxpayers not claiming the credit, volunteers can play a major role in raising awareness. You can spread the word about free tax assistance through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program—locate a site near you today or sign up to serve as a volunteer tax preparer. To locate a site near you, call 1.800.906.9887.
Finally, you can urge your member of Congress to protect these important improvements to the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.
Vulnerable families shouldn’t have to worry about losing their eligibility or receiving a smaller credit, especially at a time when Congress will be considering extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
With your help, they won’t have to. Make your voice heard this EITC Awareness Day.
Katie Wright is the Special Assistant for the Half in Ten Campaign at the Center for American Progress.