They can help narrow the wealth gap during the pandemic
FOR COMMUNITIES OF COLOR, there has always been a strained relationship with our tax system, thanks to rules that keep the gap between black/brown and white wealth disproportionally wide. The tax system was even weaponized against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was investigated in both Georgia and Alabama, and repeatedly by the IRS, which investigated his finances and those of colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
Today, the system of taxes and associated advantages remain problematic for black people in Boston who have a net worth that is considerably lower than other groups. Ordinary income, such as wages, are taxed between 10 percent and 37 percent, yet capital gains, which is extra income from selling investments, is taxed between 0 to 20 percent. These relatively lower taxes on income from wealth worsen existing inequalities because more than half of all corporate stock and mutual fund shares are held by the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent.
Due to centuries of systemic racism that have blocked wealth-building opportunities, US median white household wealth is over 40 times that of median black household wealth and over 20 times that of median Latinx household wealth.
There is economic assistance on the way. In the waning days of 2020, we saw a new Congressional stimulus act, which will bring low and moderate-income families thousands of extra dollars via tax credits. As leaders of organizations seeking fairer taxes and advancing economic justice, we’re excited because data shows that when families receive refundable tax credits, they and their children are healthier, with effects ranging from increased birth weight to decreased suicides. Tax credits also help low-income children do better on tests, which increases their likelihood of attending college and of earning more income over a lifetime.
While tax credits provide so many benefits, we’re worried hard-working families will miss out on this financial lifeline.
Why? The rules are confusing, largely unknown, and most people are focused on more pressing needs like staying healthy, virtual schooling, working from home, or re-applying for unemployment insurance. Most of the parents we typically meet have lost income during the pandemic and are under immense financial strains, yet they have no idea the new stimulus bill contains tax credits – not for the rich – but for them.
That’s why it’s critical to spread the word and for those of us working with families to connect them to free, safe, high-quality tax preparation through community-based Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs to maximize their return with these two key changes:
- First, taxpayers who have lost income or are unemployed can use their higher 2019 income to calculate the value of their 2020 Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). These tax credits are worth thousands – up to $6,660 for the EITC and up to $2,000 per child for the CTC. A higher earned income means more money.
- Second, some families did not receive the first stimulus payment in the spring because one person in the couple was an immigrant, or because they did not have to file taxes in past years. In both cases, they can now claim the new credit on their current tax return, which will also get them the first stimulus payment they were denied.
Unfortunately, these rules are esoteric – most of the people who can benefit from these new tax rules aren’t even aware of them. But that’s not surprising: last year, Americans left almost $10 billion EITC funds on the table.
Adding insult to injury, paying for the so-called experts – tax preparers – isn’t guaranteed to maximize tax deductions. Consider this: Americans spend $1.75 billion annually for someone else to do their taxes yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the IRS have found for-profit tax preparers have a 60 percent error rate. The GAO also found free tax sites like Boston Tax Help Coalition and the coalition’s free online tax service, StreetCred, have just a 7-8 percent error rate.
We learned so much about each other in 2020, a year that revealed large fractures in the American mythology of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. The new tax credits are an opportunity to provide families with thousands of dollars, money that will enable pathways to safety, security, the American Dream, and Dr. King’s notion of the Beloved Community.
With the pandemic having taken so much from our children and their families already, we need to make sure these tax credits get into the pockets of those who deserve it. Only then can we begin to narrow the wealth gap, while creating an infrastructure that sends more low-income kids to college, increases their lifetime earnings, creates healthier families, and lessens the strained relationship within our tax system.
This year’s tax credits are just the start. Let’s not miss this chance.
Dr. Lucy Marcil is the executive director of StreetCred, Imari Paris Jeffries is the executivedDirector of King Boston,Marie-Frances Rivera is the president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, and Mimi Turchinetz is the director of the Boston Tax Help Coalition.