At Code for America, we believe that financial stability should be equitable, inclusive, and guaranteed to everyone. It underpins all of our work, from building a stronger social safety net to removing barriers to opportunity for those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. We’ve known for a long time now, through our work on GetCalFresh and other programs, that financial stability has not been accessible, inclusive, or guaranteed by our current government systems. And like so many other cracks in our society, the COVID-19 pandemic has made that all the more visible.
That’s why we decided to rapidly scale GetYourRefund at the outset of this crisis. Initially, we’d planned to stand up this service the typical Code for America way: start small, iterate, take in real human feedback, continuously improve the product, and eventually expand the service to more and more people in order to meet their needs at scale. But that… wasn’t in the cards. Back in March, as it was becoming rapidly clear that we were entering an unprecedented moment of financial instability for millions and millions of people across the country, we knew that making GetYourRefund available to as many people as possible as quickly as possible was a matter of economic justice.
As I shared at the end of last year, a nine-month exploration of the workforce system led us to the realization that the best way to help low-wage workers gain financial stability is through access to flexible cash. We determined that one way we could help people access that cash is in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the largest government benefit available to workers. In 2018 alone, the EITC lifted 5.6 million people out of poverty. The EITC is cash that people have already earned through our tax code—but in order to receive it, you need to claim it on your tax return. And the government-issued stimulus payments to address the pandemic were also dependent on whether you’d filed a tax return in the past two years. More than ever, it became clear to us that filing taxes is a matter of economic justice.
But even someone with a great degree of financial stability would tell you that filing taxes is far from simple. For many of us, it’s a task that we outsource to third-party services just so we don’t have to deal with the headache. The process is full of complexity and loopholes that create boundaries. And those boundaries are there by design.
We know from extensive interviews that often, the reason someone hasn’t filed taxes is not for lack of awareness about the credits they might receive, but because of systemic barriers such as the unnecessary difficulty of filing taxes, and the fear of facing negative consequences such as an IRS audit. Many of the people who qualify for the EITC can’t afford to pay a third party to navigate them through the complexity of the tax code. At Code for America, we believe that helping hardworking families file their taxes and claim benefits like the EITC is a matter of economic justice.
That’s why we partnered with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) to connect people to IRS-certified volunteers and create a tax filing service that is free, trustworthy, and simple. It’s available anytime, and easily accessible from your phone. We’re not incentivized in the same way that for-profit tax preparers are—our only goal is to ensure people get the flexible cash that they have earned.
Admittedly, the pandemic has put us in a position where we’re building the plane while flying it. In the past few months, we’ve learned so much about tax filing and had so many assumptions challenged. For example, we knew that it would be challenging to serve people who had never filed taxes before, but we underestimated the barriers that many families would face in obtaining key documents needed to make it through the process (especially during a pandemic), and just how much hands-on coaching our VITA partners would need to provide to help overcome those barriers.
We’re doing everything we can to reduce the barriers and complexities that we already knew about, while adding features to reduce the ones we’re learning about along the way. GetYourRefund asks a series of basic questions about your life and finances, with live chat support along the way in case someone gets stuck. Filers can use a smartphone camera to submit proof of identity and any necessary documents.
As we’ve learned more about the challenges filers face in obtaining needed documents, we’ve added volunteer roles to provide additional support and keep clients motivated. Unfortunately, many clients run out of options and simply cannot access the documents they need—we will continue to document these cases to provide further insights into the systemic barriers clients face in trying to file.
We’re lucky to have the partnership over over 45 VITA sites across the country (quite a jump from the 4 we originally planned upon!), with local leadership and well-trained volunteers willing to jump onboard, provide feedback on GetYourRefund, and iterate with us as we seek to improve our services to clients. We’ve also been extremely lucky to be able to tap into our incredible Brigade Network, who have been instrumental in helping us get this service to where we are now—whether that’s creating training materials for VITA partners, onboarding new sites, or engaging clients directly to help them move through the process. We’ve leaned heavily on the expertise of partners like Prosperity Now who are connecting us to VITA sites across the country and providing deeper insight into the challenges we see when serving clients directly. And we’re grateful for the generosity of funders like Blue Meridian Partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Citi Foundation, and Tipping Point Community, who recognize the importance of this work and are enabling us to keep building on GetYourRefund. It takes a whole ecosystem of dedicated people who care about this work to close this gap.
We spent the past four months barreling toward the extended July 15th tax deadline, and are incredibly excited to share that in that time, we helped low-income households file over 10,600 tax returns—delivering an estimated $32 million in flexible cash that people can use to help meet a wide variety of needs. And while the federal deadline has passed, most low-income families can continue to file until October 15 without a penalty. We’ll keep working with our VITA partners to support as many families to file as we can before then. And even after that date has passed, we’ll keep sharing stories about this work as we continue learning, improving, and doing our part to help people get the money they have earned—the economic justice they deserve.