Meet Code for America’s New Senior Program Director for Tax Benefits

A Q&A with the newest member of our leadership team, David Newville

This week, we’re welcoming a new Senior Program Director for our Tax Benefits program, David Newville. David is tax-policy veteran who has created and advocated for policies that promote economic justice for those on the margins of the US economy.

To introduce David, we asked him a few questions about his background, his experience working with policymakers, and the opportunities he sees for how Code for America can help families access the tax benefits they are due.

At this moment of transition, what do you think that the government can do to help people survive this pandemic financially?

This is a timely and important question. Families in America are suffering, particularly in communities on the margin and communities of color. Policymakers must see the struggle and take action to address it.

There are really two levers that can be deployed right now. We can put cash into people’s hands, and we can pause debts. Policymakers should look at both options. The longer we wait, the more damage there will be.

Putting cash into people’s hands is fundamental for recovery. One priority is another economic impact payment, and policymakers should also look at other options as well, including the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), at both the federal and state levels, and flexible cash for families with students in school, known as Pandemic EBT (P-EBT).

Policymakers should also look at ways to pause debts to prevent evictions, avoid defaults and protect people from predatory lenders. We have to take steps to help people avoid an endless cycle of debt.

One other thing—we must make it easier for families to access the benefits they are due — at the federal, state and local level.

We can do this in a number of ways including increasing access to free tax assistance and extending the tax filing deadline again. This will help ensure that households are better able to access the EITC and other anti-poverty programs. And we can make sure that government is designed in an equitable way to expand access for all and meet people where they are in life..

What do you think is the value of expanding Code for America’s presence into Washington, DC?

With a new Administration and a new Congress, Code for America has a real opportunity to share data and insights to inform policy decisions as we navigate this global pandemic.

Improving tax preparation access has been in the discussion long before the pandemic, but it is more important now than ever. There are new leaders, and we need to discuss with them how to scale free and low-cost tax preparation.

Policymakers at all levels must focus on lessons learned from this past tax season and apply them to this new cycle. There will be consequential decisions made in the next few months, and the data and insights that Code for America has developed will be critical for decisions affecting working families.

This is vital because tax programs are complicated. Even seasoned tax experts make mistakes. We need to explore how to simplify things, remove barriers, and ensure that people can access the benefits they are due. Simply put, we must find a way to make the tax code work better for families.

What’s your approach to engaging with policymakers?

I’ve worked with leaders on both sides of the aisle—and at the federal and state level. I’ve found that the key to success is bringing relevant data and analysis to the table. It is an incredibly powerful tool in constructing programs that work.

On Capitol Hill and in state capitols, there’s a real hunger for data that paints a picture. For example, there is not a large amount of household data on tax preparation, which makes it hard to get beyond the anecdotal. Policymakers want to know what’s happening on the ground, the lived experiences of people using the programs, and how they can make government work better. The best policy decisions come from an understanding of individuals who utilize these programs.

Ultimately, we want to be seen as an honest broker, working in partnership with other trusted organizations. This will help grow the credibility of our organization so that we can bolster faith and make government services work better for those who depend on and use them.

What do you see as the value of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for reducing poverty?

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the premier anti-poverty program in the country. It’s the number one lever for pushing millions of families out of poverty. Yet, every year, American families aren’t receiving billions of EITC dollars that they’re owed,which clearly demonstrates that there is much to be done with improving access, reducing barriers, and expanding education. That’s where the data comes in. It allows us to identify the choke points and improve the experience for families and tax preparers alike.

There is a lot of bipartisan interest around EITC and the Child Tax Credit in the new congressional class. More states are also creating their own EITC or expanding existing ones as well. Looking forward to 2021, we have two goals; 1) making it easier for families to access the EITC and 2) looking for ways to expand the program to help more people in America.

What do you think needs to be done to encourage more families in America to sign up for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and make sure they’re eligible for any future direct assistance for COVID relief?

It’s long been a myth that the main barrier to focus on is awareness.

Code for America has great research in this area, and they’ve found that people are scared off by the complexity of the tax code and are concerned that if they make mistakes, it will lead to additional problems for their families. As a result, many taxpayers do not claim the EITC even when they are entitled to it.

Additionally, the quality of tax preparers varies greatly. Some in this space are amazing. But others don’t have the experience and background needed. In some states you need a license to cut people’s hair, but you don’t need to meet any basic standards to help with tax preparation.

There is a real opportunity here—simplify the tax preparation process and, in turn, it will be easier to get free or low-cost tax assistance, thereby removing barriers and vastly increasing the number of families who sign up for the EITC.

Additionally, there are several proposals to expand and improve the EITC—increasing the age range at the top and bottom and expanding eligibility to childless workers and non-custodial parents. Policymakers should explore these proposals and consider ways to close the EITC participation gap.

Finally, we do have to increase awareness. Some families just don’t know about the EITC. More education is needed at every level.

You spent three years as a volunteer tax preparer. How has that experience shaped your perspective on what needs to be done to help families access the benefits they are due?

This was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in my career. It has shaped my perspective on the importance of quality tax preparation, the EITC, and the tax code in general.

Tax filing is a huge moment in people’s lives, especially those in a financially volatile situation. I saw a lot of fear from people coming in with piles of papers and not knowing how to navigate the process.

For those who get a refund, it means the ability to pay down debts, save for the future or purchase something they need. For those who don’t, it creates an incredible amount of financial stress and uncertainty.

Part of my interest in joining Code for America is the understanding that the tax process so fundamentally affects so many Americans. Through the hard work done here, and relationships built, we have a real opportunity to increase equitable access for millions of people in America.

What do you think can be done to simplify the tax preparation process and increase equitable access to benefits?

There’s so much that can be done.

We can scale access to free, safe, and efficient tax preparation. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is one of the few bright spots over the past few years. We can look for ways to further increase access in a scalable manner through programs like GetYourRefund.

We can influence and guide necessary changes to tax policy to simplify the process. Today, it’s overly complicated. We can simplify dramatically, reduce complexity, and limit overpayments.

We can improve and modernize the tax filing process. It’s time to reduce friction, bring the process into the 21st century and make the process work better for low-income families.

And we can expand the EITC to put more money in the hands of people in marginalized communities. It’s one of our largest anti-poverty programs, but, as we mentioned, there are problems with access, administration, and coordination with other tax credits such as the CTC.

There are also many opportunities to expand the EITC and free tax preparation at the state level as well, across the country in red, purple, and blue states.

This moment is key. We have incredible opportunities to use technology and policy to make sure that we can increase access in a scalable and efficient manner that makes it easier for low-income families.

Do you think most government officials understand the hardship and economic uncertainty that millions of families are facing in this crisis?

First off, let me say hats off to the IRS. Last year, the people working at the IRS went above and beyond in providing economic impact payments for millions of people in America. This was a monumental task, and while not perfect, I think they did a phenomenal job.

At the same time, I think it’s hard for people working in government to understand and appreciate the lived experiences of those who use the programs that they develop. This misses a huge swath of people affected by the programs, who all have different stories and experiences. The different kinds of struggle are not always at the surface, and it’s the biggest missing link in crafting policy—not just on tax—but for many issues.

So that’s where Code for America and others can come in to share data, stories, and insights to help make it real for the people making decisions about such critical programs.

How has your experience in both the public sector (US Department of the Treasury) and the private sector prepared you to take on this new role at Code for America?

One of the struggles we faced at Treasury was finding accurate, reliable, and unbiased consumer data to shape decisions.

In addition, many of our state and federal programs have broken down at a time when people really need to access these vital benefits. We have seen a majority of government programs fail, due to digital issues, resources and education. So we must look at how we can use data and human-centered design to make government work better for the people who use it.

This work is needed now more than ever, and I look forward to working at Code for America and our partners to help make tax programs more accessible and more equitable for all people in America.