Tax Refund Opens Doors

By: Matt Hansen

Isabel Estefan has always been motivated to do better.

She left her native Cuba to study petroleum engineering in Russia, hoping to build a career back home. But when she returned, things didn’t go according to plan in Cuba’s difficult economy.

“I couldn’t apply what I learned and studied [in Russia],” she remembered. Instead, she and her family struggled to get by — and that simply wasn’t good enough for Isabel.

So she took a big risk, one that would take her thousands of miles from home and her friends and loved ones. Together with her mother and her young son, she left for the United States in August 2014 to build a better life.

Her arrival in America was disorienting and discouraging. She spoke no English, had no place to live, and felt as if everyone was talking down to her, as though she was barely there.

With nowhere to turn, she called 311, New York’s public information hotline, looking for help. They gave her a list of telephone numbers and she called each one, trying desperately to find someone to help her navigate her new home.

Everything changed when she reached Part of the Solution (POTS), a Robin Hood-funded emergency food provider and multi-service center that connects low-income New Yorkers with a variety of resources to stabilize their lives.

“I felt like they were giving me life,” she said.

“They spoke to me like a decent person.”

Heartened by her conversation, she went to meet them in person. To save what little money she had, Isabel walked a mile to POTS’ Bronx office from the Robin Hood-funded Women In Need shelter where she was staying.

“The minute I walked in the door, everything started opening up,” she said.

With the help of POTS, she was able to access the critical services and benefit programs she needed to create a life for herself and her family in the United States. There she registered her son for Medicaid and applied for food stamps to feed her family.

Much of this assistance came via Single Stop, a Robin Hood-incubated nonprofit which runs free support programs embedded in health clinics, food pantries, and other locations like POTS where low-income New Yorkers go for help.

With Single Stop’s “one-stop shop” model, Isabel was able to apply for an array of benefits, access social services, and get much-needed advice without shuffling from office to office across the city.

And this year, when it came time to file her taxes, she turned once again to POTS, who helped make sure she was getting the largest refund possible on the $14,000 she had earned working as a home attendant.

When she had completed her tax forms, Isabel discovered something she didn’t expect: a $3,000 tax refund, largely funded by the earned income tax credit (EITC).

She was overjoyed. On her $10 an hour salary $3,000 was the equivalent of nearly 2 months of full-time work. More than money, it was an opportunity to change her life.

For many lower-income Americans, the EITC provides a much-needed annual boost that can help pay for big expenses like childcare, car payments, student loans, or even mortgages. One of the most effective poverty-fighting programs in the nation, it has returned nearly $67 billion to 27.5 million hard-working low-income families.

When Isabel received the news about her refund, she knew exactly what she was going to do.

“I’m going to use that to move out of the shelter,” she said, proudly. “I’m hoping to find affordable housing” — a goal that had long eluded her in such an expensive city.

And permanent housing is just the first of her many goals she’s set out to achieve.

“I would really like to work as an engineer, to apply what I learned in Russia working here, or working as a teacher,” she said. “I want to work hard and provide for my family.”

As of April 15, she’ll be one step closer to that dream of reaching her full potential, even a world away from where she started.


*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

Part of the Solution (POTS), a Robin Hood-funded nonprofit, offers a wide-range of support services to struggling New Yorkers. From a food pantry to free clothing, legal assistance to showers, medical care to haircuts, and more, POTS provides New Yorkers living in poverty with the help they need.

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