Getting the Earned Income Tax Credit

Seattle & New Orleans: Tax day finally passed, and we were in it up to our ears this year! 

A casual conversation with Luz Vega-Marquis, President of the Marguerite Casey Foundation based in Seattle, Beth Rosales of the same, Drummond Pike of the Tides Foundation, and myself over lunch in the rain a little more than a year ago had somehow propelled us into a massive three-city experiment ACORN designed and Marguerite Casey funded.  We were all appalled that one of the few entitlements left for low income families did not have darned close to full participation and we wanted to know why not.  I happened to have it on my mind that day having recently read an article about the shortfall, and after I mentioned this scandal, Luz turned to me three times and said, “Wade, I’m interested in this – come back to me with something that changes this.” 

All of which led us to the point where we were testing out our methodology of door-to-door, full court press organizing in the diverse lower income neighborhoods of Miami, New Orleans, and San Antonio to see if we could prove that something could be done much, much differently.  Starting from scratch we managed to take this whole concept and operation from “zero to sixty” in order to try and get up and running to have free tax prep sites, crews to move on the doors and phones, tax preparers, IRS approvals and software, and everything else on-line and cooking, including what has led to a huge campaign against H&R Block and now Jackson-Hewitt, the two largest preparers in the country on their practices, especially RALs – refund anticipation loans – but that’s another story!

I met with Luz and her team late on Wednesday afternoon in Seattle and was able to give them the partial results from the first tax season – and in many ways they were amazing.  In these three cities we had filed returns worth about $5 million dollars!   About 5500 folks had filed with us and more than half of them had qualified for EITC, as we had speculated.  We had also managed to seriously engage H&R Block and are close to an agreement from the reports of Maude Hurd, President of ACORN, and Lisa Donner, Director of the ACORN Financial Justice Campaign, who has been managing the effort. 

It had also been wild and fun.  It felt like the old days when we were running everything out of storefronts with people lining the halls to get their EITC benefits and their taxes done.  Seeing the organizers and members beating the streets to push full participation in a benefit program that lower income working families desperately need, but somehow the IRS and everyone else is trying to drown in silence, all makes sense and then translates into dollars and cents.

Why with all of the benefits to people and the cities where they live, are we not doing everything that should – and can – be done?

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Address-less

Vancouver: A tip on a boat in high waves last year, trying to make it from Cortez Island to Vancouver Island to fly back and then home, led me to the Sylvia Hotel, a good enough, older house, which becomes fantastic because its location is hard by the beach at English Bay and right next to Stanley Park.  A beautiful spot that rain or shine lets me open my eyes and look across the water at the freighters coming into the Bay filled with containers against the outline of the coast mountains farther behind them.  I can run along the seawall around the Park and keep an eye on the ducks and gulls, while stepping around the screeching fish crows or searching for the soaring eagle.  I can run into the Park and around Lost Lagoon where today the mallards and coots were everywhere and giant, gorgeous white swans painted from a picture right onto the water, were also in two cases nesting and waiting for the time to bring the chicks forward. 

   Or I can run the other way along the false river along the water and under the bridges.  On the beach there will always be homeless folks camping and under cover or picking from can to can.  Canada is a different place.  They actually spend money to maintain Stanley Park, pave the walkways, build new pads for the benches, and plant the tulips in this season.  They also donate good equipment to the homeless.  It is often easy to be confused by someone walking in good gear from trash can to trash can or sleeping in what appears a sturdy bag with good ground cover about whether these are a variety of urban campers or homeless.  But appearances are simply that.  Stopping in a convenience store we all had to wait as the counter clerk confronted one fellow who had managed to put six cartons of butter, cheese, crackers, and assorted other items into his jacket before being spotted.  To keep the police from being called he claimed he would pay up, if allowed to go use the ATM.  The clerk pointed to one in the back of the store, but the fellow said he had to use a chartered bank — and they disputed this unusual point until he was able to finally break for the door and run. 

   Yesterday a couple of miles away from beautiful Stanley Park, we visited the offices of DERA — the Downtown Eastside Residents Association — which delivers services in this large neighborhood of 15000 residential and transient souls depending on the season.  Walking in and visiting at the counter of a classic storefront that reminded me of a hundred organizations where I had stood just like this over the years, one could hear time stuck here as well.  Advocates that assisted people in getting welfare and dealing with housing at the hundreds of SRO style hotels that were everywhere through this area, gave us a brief of the ups and downs of service delivery because of the vagaries of funding from the provincial and other government sources.  A constant commitment to service programs for the community though sometimes one thing and sometimes another, and sometimes not much at all.

   DERA is a seminal organization in the contemporary history of social action and movements in Vancouver.  Jim Green, a current councilman, was a long time director and visionary there.  Still styled as a membership organization, once a year 300 or so people get together and elect officers and try to soldier on.

   Members are defined as whoever can prove they live in the downtown eastside by whatever means possible.  I listened carefully to the explanation that there was not homelessness here — people instead were “address-less.” 

   Downtown or on the beach in the shadow of Stanley Park it’s still no picnic for anyone without a home — or an address.

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