A Model for Increasing EITC Participation

Building Financial Resilience in Miami

Background

The Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, lifts more people out of poverty each year than any other federal government program (~9.2 million).¹ Even though the average EITC return in Florida is over $2,500, around 92,000 Miamians neglect to claim it each year.² Why do so many low-income Miamians pass up such a significant benefit, and what can we do about it?

Project

Ker-twang partnered with Citi Community Development, the United Way of Miami-Dade County and the Miami Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program led by Branches to find a new approach for reaching EITC-eligible non-filers in Miami. Together we defined two strategies based on an in-depth understanding of our target audience’s needs.

Process

To learn why some low-income Miamians forgo the EITC, we needed to understand how taxes fit into the day-to-day realities of their lives, how taxes and tax filing options are perceived, what people aspire to, and what they fear. Based on in-depth interviews throughout Miami-Dade with filers and non-filers alike, conversations with VITA tax preparers and site coordinators, and a comprehensive literature review, we devised preliminary concepts that we brought back to non-filers, VITA volunteers, and other stakeholders to refine or — more often — scrap and redefine. We then prototyped the leading concepts in the field to learn what works and why, with an eye toward a full-scale pilot next tax season.

“Ugh, taxes. I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to think about it. And you definitely have to be careful with who you’re letting do it, especially in South Florida.”
— EITC-eligible non-filer in Miami

Concepts

Low-income Miamians who feel like taxes are scary, confusing, or overwhelming need support that reaches them where they are, makes taxes feel doable, and inspires confidence that they’ll be able to file correctly.

We prototyped ways to reach and effectively communicate with EITC-eligible non-filers, including in-person, grassroots initiatives and online, audience-specific tax education. In particular, we landed on two strategies:

  1. Physical outreach in places where low-income people have time for brief interactions, for example the waiting rooms in pediatrician offices at low-income health clinics
  2. Outreach on social media to provide timely, relevant content that addresses the most salient tax-related fears, myths, and perceptions that hold people back, as well as draw attention to the very real benefits of filing for people like them.
“Everybody on social media was talking about their refund. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh yeah, taxes! Oh yeah, I’m not doing that.’”

The concepts are half the battle, but implementation details determine their success. We assembled best practices and communication guidelines from our field trials and research that cover everything from messaging to medium.

Pediatrician offices in low-income health clinics are a great place to conduct EITC outreach. There’s built-in trust, the people there are often eligible for a significant EITC return because they have kids, and because they’re waiting for their appointment they have time for a brief conversation.

A few findings

Inspire confidence, don’t teach the tax code
People don’t generally need (or want) to know the ins and outs of tax law, but they do want to feel like they’re in control of any decisions that need to be made about their taxes. Help them feel like taxes aren’t a series of IRS booby traps and advanced mathematics. Example: “Taxes are manageable and we’re here to help.”

“I don’t have anyone to, like, guide me, and I don’t want to go to just anybody to do taxes.”

If you want to tell people how to do something, do it by telling them what other people do. It’s reassuring to hear that you’re not alone, and it makes it easier to ask questions if you don’t feel like an outlier. Instructions can sometimes feel like commands.

→ We found that people want different information from different sources. Tax preparers can provide answers to specific filing questions but may not be able to speak to things like the fear of filing for the first time. Make it easy for people to connect with peers and people like them who’ve gone through it.

Be simple, clear, and colloquial 
Taxes are complicated enough as they are, and people respond poorly or tune out when they’re made to feel dumb. Write concisely, and when possible, at a 5th grade reading reading level. Writing simply does not mean talking down to.

  • Don’t: “Eligible deductions may reduce your taxable income”
  • Do: “Some things you spent money on could make your refund bigger”

Using the word “free”
Even though one of VITA’s most touted attributes is that it’s free, we found that low-income filers prefer to pay for perceived quality so they don’t get in trouble. None of the non-filers we spoke with mentioned the cost of tax prep as a significant barrier to filing taxes. What’s more, Facebook ads that prominently featured “free” actually performed worse. While free is an important benefit, we don’t recommend leading with it. Instead, emphasize other merits, like expertise.

→ People’s engagement increases when it’s perceived to be valuable and limited. E.g., “VITA’s certified tax professionals will get your taxes done right. Now available for Miami-Dade County residents. Call today.”

→ People are considerably more averse to loss than eager for gains. Example: “Thousands are getting their taxes done right. Don’t miss out. As a Miami resident, you qualify for VITA’s professional tax service.”

Educate, don’t advertise
Many non-filers felt that they don’t have anywhere to turn to for guidance and advice. It’s ironic that Google — which has the answer to every question — is no longer a helpful resource for people in situations like this. Indeed, if you search for questions like “I’m on food stamps but work on the side, should I file taxes?” or “What questions should I ask my tax preparer?” you’ll mostly find marketing content written by tax preparers.

“I will not say that [not filing] is the best decision, because I don’t know. I will say that it’s the safest decision for me at the moment. I’m not prepared to take the risk of losing my housing or my food stamps. I know that I’m not in the position to lose them right now, especially because I’m so close to getting away from needing them.”

Content should be oriented around the concerns that people have and should feel professional and serious. Among low-income Miamians there’s real fear about the consequences of filing incorrectly and urgency around the timing of tax refunds. Attempts to make light of taxes can feel out of touch, or even patronizing.

A scene in a video explaining online tax filing for low-income people. Here, the video states that this service is available for “low-income people who make $66k per year or less” but depicts a smug, cartoon person buried in gold.

Impact

Citi, United Way, Branches, and the Miami VITA coalition gained a new playbook for attracting and serving EITC-eligible non-filers and an actionable roadmap for piloting two high-impact interventions next tax season. The road to reaching as many Miami non-filers as possible starts by proving that we can do this: this tax season these pilots will aim to get 1,000 new non-filers to file, thereby bringing an additional $2M to low-income families in Miami — all without drawing resources from VITA’s existing operations. With these pilots, the Miami VITA coalition is poised to generate data from an in-market experience that tests real behavior with a large set of real users, and build on this success to help bring tens of millions of dollars to thousands of low-income Miamians.