At Code for America, we believe that financial stability should be equitable, inclusive, and guaranteed to everyone.
Flexible cash—meaning money that individuals and families decide how to spend for themselves—is one of the best ways to empower people toward financial stability. Cash support helps people provide for their basic needs, find and keep living wage jobs, and handle emergencies as they arise.
Flexible cash is usually distributed through the tax system via tax credits and stimulus payments. Cash support is available to many people with low or moderate incomes through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the country’s largest benefit for workers. In 2019, the EITC delivered $61 billion to 25 million eligible workers. This cash is especially important, considering four in ten Americans would struggle to come up with $400 for an unexpected expense. Unfortunately, one in five eligible households are not currently claiming the benefit. As a result, $10.5 billion is left on the table every year—that’s about $1,336 per household.
The EITC is one of the most effective programs for lifting families out of poverty, but millions of people who need it don’t claim it. It isn’t just a lack of awareness. Complicated and confusing tax systems make it difficult for people to claim the benefits they deserve. We’re working to change that.
Code for America built the only online, mobile-friendly application connecting tax filers with free, IRS-certified tax help at GetYourRefund.org.
To close the EITC and other tax benefit participation gaps, we went out into communities to ask why people weren’t claiming this benefit. Our conversations revealed that people aren’t filing their taxes or claiming the EITC because of emotional hardship after a life event, worries about the unclear consequences of filing, and a lack of accessible tax assistance.
We realized we could break down barriers to tax filing by providing services that are trustworthy, free, and easy to use.
That’s why we partnered with the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program on a pilot for the 2020 tax season. VITA provides the kind of free tax help people deserve—but the program can’t help everyone who needs it. To get help from VITA, tax filers have to visit designated sites during specific hours of operation. Many tax filers have difficulty taking time off work, accessing transportation, or dealing with potentially missing tax documents. VITA’s paper-based, in-person process limits its capacity to reach people in the EITC participation gap.
At Code for America, we’ve combined our experience in service design at scale with the deep expertise and national reach of VITA. With technology, we’re helping make VITA accessible to more people. GetYourRefund.org helps tax filers get connected with VITA from anywhere in the country.
To get help, tax filers answer simple questions about their situation, securely upload their tax documents, and get connected with VITA to answer their questions. The VITA team remotely prepares the tax return, speaks with the tax filer to review their return, and files the return with the tax filer’s consent.
In 2020, GetYourRefund.org helped 500,000 people file their taxes. We worked with 945 tax prep volunteers, 55 active tax prep partners, and distributed $62 million in flexible cash to families.
Stories from our clients
People stand at the center of all our work. Complicated and confusing tax systems often make it difficult to claim the benefits and tax credits people are entitled to. We want to make it easier—because everyone deserves to be met with empathy and understanding when accessing government services. Hear from some of our clients:
People experiencing homelessness are often eligible for tax credits that benefit people with low incomes. But lack of access to necessary documents is a real barrier. GetYourRefund.org can make it easier to figure out what documents you need and how to file for benefits.
Filing taxes for the first time can be a challenging task—but people who have never filed taxes miss out when government distributes benefits through the tax system. GetYourRefund.org reaches out to people and families who are marginalized in the tax system to ensure they have the support they need.
Taxes are complicated for people who work jobs that pay in cash, people who don’t have a stable address, and people who frequently switch jobs. GetYourRefund.org makes it easier to file in challenging circumstances.
Many states suspend driver licenses for unpaid fines, like parking tickets or court fees. GetYourRefund.org works with people who have low incomes to ensure that a suspended license isn’t a barrier to filing taxes.
Traumatic and unstable life circumstances can make filing taxes difficult, or even impossible. GetYourRefund.org tries to find ways to help those overcoming trauma by providing empathetic and understanding support.
Partnership and outreach
We’re working to make sure that everyone who is eligible for the EITC knows they can claim it. We’ve partnered with Code for America’s own GetCalFresh program to send text messages and emails to families enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps. Families enrolled in SNAP are often eligible for the EITC and don’t know it.
In order to reach communities that have been marginalized by the tax system, we put a special emphasis on working with community organizations. By using trusted messengers, we seek to ensure that tax help is accessible to all.
In addition to the IRS, we partner with state governments like those in Virginia and California. We also work with tech companies like Propel/Fresh EBT, national VITA sites like United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, and over 100 local VITA partners.
Economic justice looks like families easily claiming all benefits available to them without barriers. We want to ensure that all marginalized households and people with low incomes have access to their tax benefits in the easiest, safest, and least costly manner. It’s time to get flexible cash into people’s pockets.
The Earned Income Tax Credit is a big part of that—but it’s only one part. Other cash benefits like the economic impact payments (stimulus checks) and the newly-expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) can also help lift families out of poverty. As the country institutes more flexible cash programs, we want to make sure the system of delivery is designed with equity in mind so that everyone who is eligible for a benefit has easy access to it.
In 2020, we worked to make sure that people with low incomes who don’t usually file taxes get their EITC benefits, and we’ll do the same with the CTC in the future. We’re always on the lookout for partners and projects that will help us reach people who have been excluded from the tax system and the benefits it delivers.
Key lessons learned and recommendations based on our experience serving over 800,000 clients through a variety of services at GetYourRefund.org
This report outlines the key findings from a discovery research effort that lead to the development of a prototype, GetYourRefund.org (or simply GetYourRefund)
Lessons from GetYourRefund can help ensure that new tax provisions reduce poverty in reality as much as they do on paper
Closing the participation gap for the Earned Income Tax Credit program
Policy Basics: The Earned Income Tax Credit
Scaling GetYourRefund to help more people file their taxes in the COVID-19 crisis
How GetYourRefund has helped more than 10,000 people access the tax credits they’ve earned
What people are saying about GetYourRefund
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