Kym McGee was living a comfortable life when a divorce changed it all. Gone were the house with the pool, bank account, carefree shopping and regular vacations. To make matters worse, she knew little about managing her finances.
At her most desperate, McGee, 46, says she and her children were helped by an often underclaimed tax credit for low- and middle-income workers.
Mari Rodriguez, 39, a family advocate at the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater, tells a similar story. She says that for the nine years since her divorce, being able to claim the child tax credit has made it a little easier to buy necessities for her son and to pay for him to see his father during the summer.
In a tough economy, community advocates want other low- and moderate-income workers and the growing ranks of unemployed to know that they may qualify for hundreds or even thousands of dollars in tax refunds through the federal earned income tax credit.
Some may be eligible for up to $4,824 in tax credits. Those with children could get more.
Experts say that millions of federal dollars that could benefit taxpayers and stimulate local economies regularly go unclaimed. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2007, 23.1-million eligible families and individuals claimed earned income tax credits worth $44.6-billion.
"Yet, despite this impressive showing, millions more eligible individuals did not file for the credits and ended up forgoing millions of dollars for which they qualified,'' the Washington, D.C., organization said.
As part of what is called the Florida Prosperity Campaign, organizations in Pinellas County are working to let taxpayers know about the tax credits and free tax preparation for those who qualify. The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce is one of the organizations participating in the education campaign.
"We are very supportive of the earned income tax credit,'' said John T. Long, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. "It provides the opportunity for folks who have paid taxes to be able to receive dollars back which they can use to invest back into the community.
"What happens, unfortunately, is that employees are not aware of the benefit of the earned income tax credit. What we try to do as a chamber is to inform the community and employees of these opportunities. It then becomes a win for everyone.''
According to the Wealth Building Coalition of Pinellas County, most recent IRS figures show that an estimated 60 percent of workers qualify for the earned income tax credit, but only 25 percent have claimed it. Further, of the portion that did, 46 percent spent money for tax preparation and to take out high-interest refund-anticipation loans.
The Wealth Building Coalition, based at the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center in St. Petersburg, has begun recruiting volunteers for the 2009 tax season. Volunteers are trained by the IRS to work as tax preparers at free Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites across Pinellas County.
Carmen Wilson, 52, executive director of Faith in Action of Upper Pinellas, has volunteered for four years. She said she enjoys watching people's eyes light up when they learn about the program.
"I don't worry about the hours I put in,'' she said.
Travis Clairmont, 24, who is working on his master's in business administration at the University of South Florida, will be the site coordinator at a new free tax preparation site in Childs Park.
Last filing season, volunteers at the Enoch Davis and Sanderlin centers prepared more than 2,700 tax returns, which resulted in more than $1-million in earned income tax credits, said Cherin L. Stover, coordinator of the Wealth Building Coalition.
It's important that qualified workers claim what is rightfully theirs, said McGee, the single mother who is now a district director for Junior Achievement.
"It does help you with the day-to-day finances. It helps you to be able to afford those day-to-day necessities,'' she said.
"Why pay more taxes than you should have to? Especially with the economy the way it is. Every little bit helps.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.