The Boston Tax Help Coalition (BTHC) launched its 20th tax season on Jan. 28 — once again providing free tax preparation services for city residents earning $60,000 or less per year.
Mayor Michelle Wu made the announcement four days after the start of the nation’s tax season. The deadline to file taxes in Massachusetts is April 19.
“Boston residents can save hundreds of dollars per household through the Boston Tax Help Coalition’s free tax preparation,” Wu said in a press release. “These free resources are not only a valued resource to thousands of Boston residents, but serve as a model for similar programs around the country.”
Sharon Scott-Chandler, the executive vice president of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), one of the coalition’s largest partner nonprofits, said that working with tax codes is difficult for everyone.
“Most people with resources can pay somebody to do that to look for my credits, or make sure I’m paying enough or not enough or whatever the case is,” Scott-Chandler said. “Low income folks without resources don’t have that access.”
The BTHC was originally called the Boston Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition (EITC) when it was founded in 2001. The EITC is a federal refundable credit for low-wage workers.
According to Mimi Turchinetz, coalition director for the BTHC, that year marked the beginning of “a movement for tax equity.”
However, according to the press release, data from the IRS suggests that 20% of eligible taxpayers do not receive the EITC credit, which, in Boston, amounts to $10 million dollars in unclaimed refunds.
“Our analysis was that we were leaving $10 million dollars of the Earned Income Credit on the table,” said Turchinetz. “And we knew, both instinctively as well as through the early research, that the EITC was a major anti-poverty tool, and that too many people weren’t receiving it.”
Turchinetz said the BTHC and a number of similar programs throughout the country helped create the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which is distributed through the IRS and provides funding for many of the BTHC’s vital resources — like training volunteers in tax code and tax assistance and conducting outreach campaigns.
Ever since the start of the pandemic, many assistance services the coalition offers are conducted virtually or in a hybrid format, which has led to new challenges, Turchinetz said.
“We serve the most vulnerable folks, many of whom experience a significant digital divide,” Turchinetz said. “They don’t have a comfort level with digital tools. They don’t want to use them. So they’ll come and do drop off, but drop off isn’t the same as coming into a tax site and sitting with somebody.”
Turchinetz added that the nearly-40 filing sites the coalition operated in 2021 dropped to 24 this year.
Participation in seeking tax help has also dropped during the pandemic. Scott-Chandler said ABCD alone filed around 2,500 tax returns last year. Before COVID, “we were probably doing twice that amount,” she said.
Although not conclusive, Turchinetz said the change in participation may be in large part due to people losing their jobs, and therefore not filing returns or EITC claims.
Scott-Chandler said the coalition’s goal is to help people get what they are entitled to.
“This [coalition] isn’t about giving something to someone that they don’t deserve and it’s not in the tax code,” Scott-Chandler said. “It’s about making sure people know that they have the ability to get [tax credits], and then helping them get it.”
Scott-Chandler added they were doing everything they could to “get the word out” about the program this year.
“[The BTHC] allows families who are struggling to pay a debt off, to fix a car, to pay a bill. It is a quality of life thing that actually adds to low-income, struggling, working families’ lives each year, and it’s incredible.”