When you hear “tax season,” what do you think of? Probably not anything super-positive. But what if “tax season” meant that you would be assisted by a team whose goal was to get you the best refund possible AND to explore ways to improve your quality of life? Sounds pretty good! Luckily for individuals and families in King and Snohomish counties making less than $64,000 a year, that’s exactly what the United Way Free Tax Prep Campaign does.
UWKC has been offering free tax preparation to the community since 2003, and their ultimate goal is to help put some of our hard-earned money back into our savings accounts come springtime. One of the best tools they use–one that was designed specifically to help lift low- and moderate-income houses out of poverty–is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This credit primarily benefits individuals and couples within certain income brackets who have qualifying dependents, although others can access it as well. Last year in their 2016 campaign, UWKC filed 21,750 returns, earning their clients about $29.1 million in refunds. Of this, $9.4 million came from the EITC.
As if having someone else doing your taxes for free isn’t enough, UWKC goes a couple steps further. First of all, their service is accessible and low-barrier, which means that those in the most need can get help. UWKC has 27 sites in King County, from Shoreline to Federal Way, out to Bellevue and Renton. These sites have varying hours and days, from early morning to late evenings and even weekends. Many of their tax preparers are bilingual, so language isn’t a roadblock for those seeking help. And for those of us who are somewhat antisocial and were reared by technology (here’s looking at you, 20-somethings), UWKC also offers an online option that will allow you to e-file yourself for free.
So where does WithinReach fit into tax returns? A simple screening questionnaire at intake can quickly determine if families feel like they have enough to eat, if they can pay their utility bills, or if they have healthcare needs. These issues are much more up our alley, and that is where we can address creating healthy futures for our community.
From November through January, our in-person team helped train the tax campaign’s Volunteer Intake & Benefits Specialists, or VIBS. These volunteers greet clients, manage paperwork, make sure everyone has the appropriate materials, and screen clients for possible programs. They then make referrals to our Healthy Connections Online portal in order for our staff to reach out and assist. We trained the VIBS on identifying food, health, and transportation needs, and some of the local public benefits that can help. This way, they can effectively screen clients for eligibility (using a handy-dandy UWKC screening tool) and make referrals to us, coaching their clients through how they will be contacted and what WithinReach can do for them. VIBS can also give clients information on utility assistance, credit pulls, and financial counseling.
Once we receive the referral from the VIBS, it is the job of our Outreach & Enrollment Specialists to reach out to the client within two business days. Once we get in contact with the client, we talk with them to determine what they feel they need and screen them for eligibility for a host of programs. There are a huge number of community resources out there, such as play and learn groups, food banks, and prescription assistance, that people aren’t accessing simply because they don’t know they exist. Our ParentHelp123 website can also be used by clients if they want to explore resources on their own.
To bring assistance even closer to these clients, our team of AmeriCorps Outreach & Enrollment Specialists will be attending four of the busier tax sites once a week through tax season– Lake City Neighborhood Service Center, Rainier Community Center, Burien Goodwill, and the Central Library. Instead of sending in a referral, our team can actually help clients on the spot.
The Tax Campaign aims to put money back into the pockets of low-income households across King county. This money can pay medical bills, help with groceries, keep the lights turned on, or be tucked away for later. This partnership between WithinReach and the UWKC tax sites aids with our own personal mission of making healthy futures attainable for families across Washington, by connecting them to the resources they need to be healthy and safe.