Tax season is upon us -- which might seem to represent more headaches than help. Yet plenty of hard-working families see tax-filing as not only an important civic obligation, but a chance for help catching up on bills and paying for their most basic needs.
That's because of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Working families who qualify for it are able to use this credit to make ends meet, because for some families, even working full-time isn't enough to get by.
The federal EITC represented nearly $60.7 billion in help for almost 26.5 million low- and moderate-income working households in 2012. Unfortunately, the IRS estimates that one out of five eligible workers doesn't claim the EITC because they are not aware of it. That could mean as much as $5,891 per family left on the table.
Families should ensure they obtain the EITC if they qualify for many reasons -- reasons that also illustrate the significance of policy efforts to maintain and strengthen this crucial tax credit.
The EITC reflects hard work. The credit is available only to taxpayers who work and have earned income.
And it helps families to cover their basics. Groceries, rent and utility bills are common uses for families' EITC dollars. Another frequently cited expense is car repairs, which help family breadwinners with the transportation necessary to get to and keep their jobs.
Households with children find the EITC particularly important. The amount of the credit is greater for families who incur the added expenses of raising kids. And this EITC assistance was responsible for keeping an average of 3.1 million children out of poverty annually from 2009-2011.
Remarkably, the EITC lifts more families out of poverty than any other federal policy. It kept an average of 6.1 million people out of poverty annually from 2009-2011, and reduced the effects of poverty for another 21.2 million people.
Furthermore, as families spend the money they save through the EITC, local small businesses benefit. In fact, studies have shown that one EITC dollar -- spent at the local level -- generates as much as $1.50 to $2 in economic activity for the area.
Many families strive to set aside some of their EITC to work toward long-term goals or to brace for emergencies. One survey found that about 39 percent of households receiving the credit devoted about 15 percent of their EITC refund dollars to savings.
These families must be working in order to qualify for the credit, and they already pay a significant portion of their incomes in federal, state and local taxes. The credit is typically needed for only temporary stretches of time. Among EITC filers studied between 1989 and 2006, 42 percent claimed the credit for only one year at a time, 19 percent retained it for two straight years, and only about one in five kept the credit for five or more consecutive years.
And the refreshing news is that the EITC has historically enjoyed bipartisan support. The EITC was designed during the Nixon administration, established during the Ford presidency, and improved by bipartisan majorities of Congress working with Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.
While crucial improvements to the EITC were extended as part of the recent "fiscal cliff" deal, as elected officials discuss ideas for tax reform, they should continue to support effective programs such as the EITC in order to protect our families and communities.
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in 1789 that nothing in this world is certain, except death and taxes. However, by claiming the EITC if they're eligible, hard-working taxpayers are certain to have some much-needed and hard-earned tax refunds to pay bills and save towards long-term goals.
To find out if you or someone you know qualifies for the EITC, you can visit www.irs.gov/eitc, or contact us at Suncoast Community Capital at 941-744-2666 or via www.suncoastcc.com.
If you do qualify, SCC is ready to prepare your return with IRS-trained community volunteers for free, so you can avoid paying to have your return filed or relying on a fee-heavy refund anticipation loan.
Mike Kennedy, is the president and chief executive officer of Suncoast Community Capital.