United Way Worldwide (UWW) supports, funds, and helps to grow VITA networks across the country. We recently spoke with Laura Scherler, Senior Director of Economic Mobility and Corporate Solutions; Barbara Saverino, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, and Bryndan Stueve, Manager, Community Impact and Economic Mobility about United Way Worldwide’s program and policy strategies in light of COVID-19, the new Economic Impact Payment Access outreach campaign, and looking ahead to next year’s tax season.
How does United Way Worldwide’s support of local VITA networks fit into the organization’s overall strategy and how has this strategy shifted since COVID-19 shut down in-person VITA sites in March?
United Way Worldwide (UWW) has a long history of supporting, funding, and helping to grow VITA networks across the country. This work fits squarely into our mission of building stronger communities by creating opportunities that enhance financial stability and economic mobility.
Historically, we helped local United Ways establish or expand VITA programs by providing technical assistance, grant funding, and by collecting and sharing best practices from the United Way network. Each year, the 211 network refers 400,000 callers to VITA sites. And 211 call specialists screen callers for EITC eligibility, answer questions about local VITA site locations and hours and schedule some 220,000 VITA appointments. Due partly to fluctuations in grant funds, over the past five years, we’ve moved to support self-preparation via MyFreeTaxes, which provides free federal and state tax preparation and filing assistance. Since 2009, MyFreeTaxes and our VITA sites have together helped U.S. taxpayers get back more than $10 billion in tax credits and refunds.
In mid-March, when COVID-19 forced brick and mortar VITA sites to close for safety reasons, some VITA programs were able to quickly shift to virtual filing. Several United Way-led VITA programs joined the Code for America virtual filing pilot operating in San Francisco and Arizona (based on United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona’s VITA Valet model). To date, more than 20 United Ways have joined GetYourRefund’s expanded pilot, and others have modified operations to provide services under SPEC’s revised guidelines. Through 211, we maintained accurate information about the status of VITA site operations, directed callers to their free tax filing options, and are on track to double the number of referrals we make annually for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and public benefits access. UWW continues to work with local and national partners to provide support and guidance to the VITA network, as well as to consumers, about remote options.
We are especially concerned about financially vulnerable populations who may not be receiving stimulus or other emergency resources during this crisis. To that end, UWW launched an outreach and assistance campaign focused on increasing access to Economic Impact Payments.
Tell us more about United Way Worldwide’s new Economic Impact Payment Access outreach campaign.
The $2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March was designed to provide immediate financial relief to the millions of Americans that lost their jobs because of the pandemic. While most people have already received these payments in the form of a direct deposit or a paper check from the IRS, millions more may not know they are eligible and need to take action to obtain their payment.
To ensure that all eligible Americans receive the financial support included in the CARES Act, UWW launched an intensive outreach and assistance campaign targeting the 9 million Americans who must act to obtain their Economic Impact Payment. The campaign targets individuals whose incomes are so low that they are not required to file taxes (and for whom the IRS has no information on file).
We’re distributing digital content targeting this population via email, social media, and digital banners. Our initial research shows this population is reachable via digital media if the content is mobile-optimized. The content informs viewers about Economic Impact Payments and the need to take action and will link to UWW’s Economic Impact Payment landing page. Those who have questions or require additional help can call a dedicated helpline operated by 211. In addition, individuals who call 211 for other reasons are being screened for Economic Impact Payment eligibility and referred to the landing page and helpline for guidance, and helpline callers are screened for EITC eligibility while receiving assistance.
Anyone who is interested in supporting our outreach efforts can download our digital content packages containing postcards, social media posts, and emails, for distribution within their networks.
What does United Way’s advocacy work in this space look like and how does it fit into your overall strategy?
Americans are best positioned for financial stability and economic mobility when they have quality education that leads to good-paying jobs that helps them get safe, affordable housing and save for the future. For low and moderate-income Americans, the EITC and Child Tax Credit (CTC), and programs that provide food to children and families, help families cover the basics while supporting work. United Way invests in a variety of programs that help workers secure and maintain employment, access tax credits, find stable housing and build savings and assets for the long-term—including through local and state policy efforts.
United Way’s policy work engages state and local United Ways while assisting policymakers in crafting the best possible government policies to advance health, education, and financial stability. In VITA and EITC outreach, we are working with national partners to expand the federal EITC/CTC and to advocate for Congress to provide more funding so more people can access VITA.
Our work also helps inform local United Ways and paves the road for their increased engagement in the policy process. We provide technical assistance, briefings, and ways to engage their community to make change. This year, we are moving from an in-person to virtual advocacy forum and Hill Day in June.
How do you see these shifts impacting the next tax season and tax preparation going forward?
We anticipate continued disruption to in-person VITA next year, and we’re already formulating funding and technical assistance strategies. We want to support our local VITA sites and help scale adaptations, including virtual VITA and in-person services, that protect public health. On the policy front, we are working with national partners to advocate for increased emergency funding for the next tax season.
What topic or issues would you be interested in discussing with your funder colleagues in the VITA/EITC outreach space?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge challenge for VITA sites to navigate this tax season. VITA programs are sure to require additional funding next tax season for technology investments that support virtual VITA delivery, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) and workspace adaptations that protect the health of site coordinators, volunteers, and filers. More filers than ever before may be looking online for free tax filing options, and it’s critical that outreach efforts help filers identify and access free virtual VITA and self-file options. At the same time, many filers lacking technological resources or capabilities for online tax filing will require targeted outreach to ensure technology barriers don’t inhibit EITC or tax refund access as well.
From a policy perspective, we’re interested in discussing the steps which can and must be done to get the economy back on a path to help low-wage workers achieve economic stability and build a path to economic mobility. Low-wage workers have been hit first and hardest by the economic impacts of COVID-19 and will suffer the longest through a protracted recovery. Expanded and enhanced unemployment compensation provided through the CARES Act has been helpful, but more can be done to extend these temporary supports throughout the term of the pandemic, supplement them where needed, and invest in our workforce development infrastructure to increase opportunities for affected workers and their families.