Access to Tax Benefits is a Critical Economic Justice Issue
When Code for America launched a free tax prep help service in March of 2020, no one could have foreseen how vital GetYourRefund would become over the following year. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit and millions of people faced job losses and financial insecurity, getting flexible cash into the pockets of people who needed it became an imperative. One of the best ways to do that was by helping people access the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the largest public benefit for workers.
“Suddenly, our tiny little pilot became a critical service,” said Annelise Grimm, Associate Program Director of GetYourRefund.
One of the key problems GetYourRefund had to solve: even though the EITC is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in the country, millions of eligible families don’t claim it. Many of them either don’t know they are eligible, or can’t find tax prep services that are trustworthy, free, and accessible. So Code for America collaborated with the IRS, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA), and the Taxpayer Opportunity Network, among others, to scale this pilot quickly. By the end of 2020 tax season, GetYourRefund helped 488,000 people with tax questions and directly filed taxes for 28,000 people, distributing over $62 million in refunds.
Panelists talked about the process of scaling this pilot, how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape the tax benefits and economic justice landscape, and how to problem solve around the challenges associated with ensuring that everyone can access the tax benefits they deserve.
The panel was moderated by Annelise Grimm, Associate Program Director of GetYourRefund at Code for America, and included Diana Laster, Technology Product Manager at Quilted Health; Don Dill, Senior Tax Analyst at IRS Stakeholder Partnerships, Education and Communication (SPEC); and Rebecca Thompson, Director of Field Engagement & Taxpayer Opportunity Network at Prosperity Now.
Annelise Grimm: Hello and welcome. The Earned Income Tax Credit is the largest public benefit for workers. Along with SNAP, it’s one of the two most effective anti-poverty programs in the United States, but millions of hardworking Americans, one out of five who are eligible miss out every year on this critical cash support. In fact, each year 10.5 billion with a B is left on the table by eligible households. Code for America wanted to understand if this huge resource is out there, why families were missing out? Our user research with non-filers revealed several key reasons. First, many people don’t know that they could benefit from filing. Second, the tax system is overwhelming and confusing.
Third, emotional hardship, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one stopped people from filing, and last, trustworthy, affordable help is really hard to find. As a result, those who need tax benefits the most are most likely to be unable to file and outreach alone is not enough to reach them. We realized this was a critical economic justice issue and that in order to help people access tax benefits, we needed to connect them with tax prep services that are trustworthy, free, clarifying, thorough, and accessible.
We learned that the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program known as VITA met most of those needs through their high quality in personal services, but they struggle to meet demand. CfA collaborated with four VITA organizations to build getyourrefund.org, a simple online tool that helps families connect with VITA volunteers remotely to do their taxes. We launched GetYourRefund in March 2020 and within weeks COVID hit and millions of people faced job losses and needed flexible cash right away.
The economic impact payments commonly known as stimulus checks would be distributed via the IRS as well and making it necessary for even more families to figure out how to file their taxes. At the same time, VITA sites across the country, a key tax prep resource were forced to close and didn’t have resources to figure out how to serve clients remotely. Suddenly, our tiny little pilot became a critical service. CfA decided we needed to scale up and we collaborated with the IRS, Taxpayer Opportunity Network, and our amazing network of volunteers to make that possible.
By the end of 2020 tax season, we had scaled from 4 to 50 partners, reached millions of people, helped 488,000 people with tax questions, and directly file taxes for 28,000 people. Our direct filing distributed over 62 million in refunds. We’re continuing to scale up the e-refund through 2021 and have already helped deliver over 200 million to families across the country. We’re fortunate to have with us today, some of the critical partners who work with GetYourRefund to scale our service nationally. Welcome, and thanks for joining us y’all. Our first question, our nation’s tax benefits have become a really important part of the COVID-19 response putting flexible cash into the hands of people quickly. Don and Rebecca, what challenges did this raise for the IRS and VITA? Let’s start with Don.
Don Dill: Well, thank you for having me today, and happy to join. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were faced immediately with two major challenges to the historical underpinning of the VITA program, and that was the access to our key community locations such as libraries, senior centers, and community centers and more importantly, the ability of our dedicated and passionate volunteers to safely serve in a face-to-face tax preparation model. Literally, within a blink of an eye, we lost thousands of sites and tens of thousands of volunteers. Obviously, tremendous challenges to overcome.
Rebecca Thompson: Adding to that, our sites weren’t done yet. COVID hit in mid-March, and there were thousands of clients left to be served, we had only served about half of the clients as normal and to just add to Don’s point, our partners were scrambling and looking for opportunities and ways to continue to deliver service and meet the needs of those thousands of clients that they hadn’t yet served last filing season.
Annelise: I remember that moment Rebecca and we had started to connect a little bit I think right around this time, we connected and started collaborating a bit more intensely. Can you share a little bit more about how VITA evolved to really meet that challenge?
Rebecca: Absolutely. I remember calling you one day and saying, “You remember that pilot that you were working on? I need you to take it to scale really quickly.” It was a great partnership and a great opportunity to leverage the expertise of Code for America with designing the platforms and really creating that space that people could use and Taxpayer Opportunity Network with our large network of VITA partners. It was wonderful that we were able to join forces to really bring our partners to your platform and help to scale that way. I must add that we had tremendous support from our funding partners, including Citi Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Blue Meridian Partners, and Gates Foundation as well to help to bring this to life. It was truly a model partnership.
Annelise: Absolutely. Don, we had reached out to the IRS to get permission for a very tiny pilot. I’m curious if you can share a little bit more about how SPEC approached the challenge of how can we help VITA go remotely? What does this mean in terms of our policies and procedures? How can we support GetYourRefund to scale?
Don: Absolutely. Like Rebecca said, we realized the challenge very quickly and realized if we were going to have any success, we were going to have to change some of our policies, particularly the way we interacted with taxpayers. Again, we were traditional face-to-face, but we understood that phone calls, video conferencing, text messaging, emailing was going to be important. What was beneficial was that innovative folks like Code for America and Taxpayer Opportunity working with us, and everybody striving to make sure we maintained our quality and made sure we had data integrity. With that, and with innovative thought processes, we were able to give a little bit more flexibility, but at the same time ensuring that our taxpayers still got the same wonderful service they deserve.
Annelise: We were really appreciative of that moment. I remember a couple of times and we’d suddenly be like, “It’s okay if we send the emails, it’s okay if text folks, it’s okay if we work a little bit differently than the IRS had even initially granted us permission to do for the small pilot,” and really, it would have not been at all possible to scale a program without that flexibility. The other thing that made scaling the program possible were volunteers. I want to start with Diana here to talk about volunteer power and how volunteer power and strategic partnerships played a huge role in helping us meet this moment. Diana, can you share a little bit about the GetYourRefund volunteers and how they helped us scale up?
Diana Laster: Definitely. GetYourRefund volunteers really mobilized and felt the energy behind what we were doing. We knew that we were putting dollars back into the pockets of low-income workers addressing a $10.5 billion gap. We knew that by using our skills in engineering design, product management to scale this program through digital enablement, that we could directly help families who are struggling, and during COVID especially, that work was so meaningful. Our volunteer team supported multiple different functions, onboarding new sites, providing translational work, developing training materials, and coaching VITA volunteers. For me, it’s really the ability to connect directly with VITA partners, in many cases, collaborating closely and co-designing with them. That was such a unique and incredible experience and volunteer power really was a big part I think of why GetYourRefund was able to scale as quickly as we did.
Annelise: Absolutely. It was a really incredible moment for me to just realize the power of volunteers for honestly the first time. I think I was a little bit scared to say, a bunch of volunteers who I’ve never met in person are going to help all of our VITA partners get onboarded into this program and teach them how to use the tool. Honestly, I was a little skeptical, and it was incredible just how powerful the volunteers were and how able to support our partners. The other volunteers who were critical to this are the VITA volunteers and Rebecca, I’m curious if you can speak a little bit to really what those volunteers had to go through in order to be able to adapt to this new service?
Rebecca: Yes, Annelise, I always say VITA volunteers’ hearts are too big for their bodies. They come with such passion to deliver this service to the community because as Diana mentioned, it’s so worth it. With the transition, I will say was hard. Our volunteers do adapt, and they’ve made it through, but it wasn’t easy to continue to deliver a service which you’re accustomed to doing in person and to completely have to switch to a virtual environment. Yes, it was quite challenging but true to form, our VITA volunteers have really stood up to the challenge, and have really been able to conquer this filing season as well as continue to provide support through the end of 2020. We’ve been able to conquer this filing season like a champ.
Annelise: That’s true, it’s been a really incredible experience. Don, I’m curious if you can speak to just a few of the other strategic partnerships that have helped us reach folks all across the country?
Don: Absolutely. One of the points I just wanted to go back on volunteers, what I think one of the lasting impressions that I may have from this great work that Code for America did, is we’ve really now expanded the opportunities for volunteers. Historically, if you didn’t have a VITA site in your city, then no matter how much you wanted to help you couldn’t so the opportunities really are exponentially increased over the years, so I’m thrilled about that. The point that I think is so important is that volunteers are the lifeline of this program. We need more, and we need more assistance. We’re looking to all kinds of organizations, whether they’re government agencies such as SNAP, agencies that have great access to people, or even community groups, or corporate volunteers. There is a place in this program for everybody. What I always say is, don’t be over-daunted by doing taxes. We may not need you to do taxes, but you can help us out outreach, for example, SNAP, reaching out to your folks that we know need these services. Everybody has an important role in this so we would really encourage everybody to reach out to us and see what part they can play in this important program.
Annelise: Thank you so much, that’s a really wonderful place to end. We’re already out of time. It’s been a wonderful conversation. Really looking forward to continue our amazing partnership to make sure everyone is able to access the tax benefits they deserve.