United Way awards $1 million to expand access to tax help

Thanks to the Campaign for Working Families, Marilyn Meehan, 58, of Port Richmond, received the largest tax refund she’s seen within the last five years of filing taxes. She said she plans to put this money to good use to pay for medical bills.

Meehan discovered the Campaign for Working Families on a New Kensington Facebook page and decided to connect with a nearby CWF tax site, one of their 15 sites in Philadelphia.

“I just have a difficult time doing my own taxes, so that’s why I reached out to them,” Meehan said. “I signed up online. It was very easy. There were a lot of appointment slots available, so I was able to get in very quickly.”

Campaign for Working Families is a nonprofit organization helping individuals and families in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey who earn $66,000 or less annually to file their taxes for free. CWF focuses on helping residents maximize the tax credits available to them to ensure they receive the largest tax return possible. The current tax season deadline has been extended until May 17.

CWF recently received a $1 million grant from the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey to continue their work throughout the city and to focus specifically on reaching residents in central North Philadelphia. The grant will also be used to strengthen CWF’s partnerships with Clarifi, Benefits Data Trust and Community Legal Services in an effort to connect residents with credit counseling, public benefits access and legal assistance, each service offered by the partners, respectively.

“We’re really excited about being able to refer someone and know that they’re going to get the services,” said Mary Arthur, president and CEO of Campaign for Working Families. “Then those opportunities really help the family achieve financial stability, and that’s the goal.”

CWF will use the $1 million to make subgrants to their partner organizations, in addition to using the funds to strengthen their own tax preparation services. The $1 million comes from the $10 million awarded to the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey from City Council as part of the Philadelphia Poverty Action Fund, an effort focused on reducing poverty in the city and aiding economic recovery.

Arthur said helping residents taking advantage of tax credits is essential in CWF’s efforts to reduce poverty. She called these credits “life-changing.”

Some of the tax credits available to residents include, education tax credits, the child tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is available to low and moderate income workers.

“Earned Income Tax Credit is the IRS saying to you, ‘OK you’re working, and we really appreciate you working and you don’t make a whole bunch of money, so what if we can help you out a little bit…to keep you moving on that path,’” said Debra Brown, a CWF volunteer.

Brown has been a volunteer with CWF for about 14 years. She is currently stationed at a tax site in West Philadelphia at the Parkside Association of Philadelphia. Brown said she has seen tax credits make a difference in the lives of young mothers and senior citizens.

This year CWF is also helping people receive the $600 and $1,200 stimulus checks issued by the federal government as pandemic relief assistance. CWF assists people in filing their 2019 taxes if necessary, and helps clients receive their stimulus money more quickly through direct deposit by setting them up with a debit card. This service is to help people who did not receive their first two stimulus checks.

Meehan was able to receive her $600 stimulus check through direct deposit with her most recent tax return through the help of CWF. When she moved from Delaware County to Port Richmond, she never received the paper check in the mail.

“Think of all of the different folks who haven’t been able to pay their rent or their utilities or even the food they may need to purchase,” Brown added. “This is very, very important. They absolutely need it.”

Brown said this year’s tax preparation has been more difficult due to the pandemic. CWF has had to make their operations largely virtual this year. There are four virtual tax sites where clients can drop off their tax documents and one completely virtual site. The remaining 11 sites have limited in-person intake available.

CWF’s volunteer base also suffered a hit this year. Last year, CWF had nearly 650 certified volunteers working on tax preparation up until March when the pandemic took hold and sites closed. This year CWF has just over 350 certified volunteers.

However, to strengthen their efforts this year, particularly in North Philadelphia, CWF has been working with Beech Community Services and five other community organizations in North Philadelphia to help residents make appointments for tax preparation. People can make appointments online and select which tax site they’d like to use.

Arthur said with CWF’s work with their partners, the organization is also able to assist clients more holistically.

“Part of that work is to look at the total of the person,” she said, “and when you look at the total of the person, it does not stop at taxes.”

Through the partnerships, clients of CWF, Clarifi, Benefits Data Trust and Community Legal Services can all refer clients to each other to best meet the clients’ financial needs.

Chelsea Barrish, VP of program impact at Claifi, said the organization will work to help clients make the most of their EITC or stimulus money through financial empowerment programming. This money may allow clients to catch up on bills or save for the future, Barrish said. She also said Clarifi can help clients better understand their credit score and how to improve their credit.

“We both give financial advice, but then we also act as an accountability partner, a coach and a cheerleader for clients who make their own financial goals,” Barrish said.

“Oftentimes more affluent individuals can access a financial advisor or they can pay an accountant for tax services, and so it’s important to give equitable access to services to folks who are low to moderate income,” Barrish added.

Through the partnership with Benefits Data Trust, clients can screen themselves for up to 19 public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), in less than five minutes, using the Benefits Launch Express online tool. People looking for more assistance in screening and applying for benefits can also connect with one of 10 partner organizations serving as BenePhilly sites, or they can access BDT’S BenePhilly toll-free hotline at 1-844-848-4376.

“It’s really about making sure that we’re serving the people the way they want to be served, when they want to be served,” said Nijah Newton-Famous, senior Pennsylvania engagement manager at BDT.

BDT has the partnership goal of reaching 750 applications for public benefits within the next year.

“Filling out a government form can be really hard and tricky,” Newton-Famous added. “It’s really important when you have someone’s attention like going to get their taxes done with Campaign for Working Families, they have a lot of information and documentation that would be necessary to complete the application, that you harness and really capitalize on that space to be able to do that.”

And for those who face bureaucracy as they try to access public benefits, such as unemployment compensation, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Community Legal Services will serve as the partner that steps in to make phone calls and write letters on behalf of clients who face hurdles.

“Getting people income is essential for their lives,” said  Debby Freedman, executive director of CLS. “Right now, so many people have lost their jobs or their businesses and unemployment compensation may be the only source of income available for their families to pay the rent, to eat, to buy toilet paper in a pandemic, all of those things.”

Arthur said the partnership with the three organizations will strengthen their work and will serve as a concerted effort to reduce poverty city-wide, but particularly in the North Philadelphia target zone.

“That’s how you’re going to move a person out of poverty, by helping them connect all of these services,” Arthur said. “They will be stronger and once you’re stronger, then you start to make better decisions for yourself. You strengthen yourself and you strengthen your community.”

From Generocity


Give
Advocate
Volunteer