Friday, April 15, 2016
Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic Unveils Earned Income Tax Credit Information Tool Kit and Online Portal.
The federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program brought millions of families above the poverty level last year. In 2014, 27.5 million low-and-moderate income workers received more than $66 billion in EITC. The average amount of EITC received by tax filers last year was more than $2400. Still, the IRS estimates that roughly $1 billion dollars is regularly left unclaimed.
Building on earlier work with the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), Columbia’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County on two projects. The first is an EITC “Tool Kit” that is designed to help advocates across the country explain to their clients and constituents how to qualify for EITC benefits. The second project is an EITC online information portal. This lay-focused website provides an overview of the EITC benefit, eligibility requirements and filing process. In addition, users have access to an eligibility calculator, filing forms and a list of resources for free help with filing for the EITC. Information about both the Tool Kit and Portal has been circulated to all 134 LSC-affiliated offices as well as other prominent service providers and community organizations.
One does not have to owe taxes or expect a refund to claim the EITC. Even those who are not required to file a federal tax return can apply. Also, those eligible for the EITC can go back three years to claim it.
Both projects exemplify the work of the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic. In the Clinic, students use technology to create products and services that allow public interest legal organizations and the courts to expand access to justice. In this project, the Tool Kit contains information about the EITC and gives legal services attorneys an overview of the need to promote EITC awareness. It also provides advocates a convenient set of resources geared towards encouraging low-to-moderate low wage workers to claim the benefits they’ve earned. Similarly, the Portal is designed to be an online “one-stop shop” for anyone to learn more about the EITC program. The students created the portal to break down seemingly complex tax filing information into straightforward language that is accessible to the public.
These two projects aim to address the overwhelming unmet demand for free civil legal services. Because many legal aid/legal services offices are understaffed in proportion to the communities they serve, many persons do not receive the legal help that they seek. One way to close this gap is to make information about significant resources available to the community. Here, while it is important for public interest lawyers to spread the word about vital benefits, there is no need for a lawyer to actually assist applicants in filing claims. Instead, the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic has made the information about how to file for the EITC available for free online. In so doing, more people can receive the much needed benefits they deserve.