The federal earned-income tax credit (EITC) is probably the most effective poverty-fighting tool in the country yet many do not know how it works or if they are eligible, assuming they have heard of it at all. This is no less the case in Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county, where the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA) is laying the groundwork for an unprecedented effort to increase utilization of the EITC to alleviate one of the highest urban poverty rates in the nation.
Almost 15 percent of Los Angeles County residents live below the official poverty line, a number that rises to over 24 percent when considering the cost of living, particularly housing. Most of the families in poverty are working but just not making enough – nearly 50 percent lack enough savings to live above the poverty level for even three months if they lose a job or get hit with a financial emergency. To help these people, for whom the EITC benefit is designed, DCBA set up the Center for Financial Empowerment (CFE) in 2016, an innovative resource to help low and moderate residents build household wealth and economic stability. Among other assistance, the CFE collaborates with community partners to provide free tax preparation services to ensure that eligible clients receive the EITC refund, which can give vital breathing room to families struggling to make ends meet. Nevertheless, the EITC along with the state’s CalEITC (a supplementary credit launched in 2015) are very underutilized. A 2017 survey by the California Budget & Policy Center found that fewer than 1 in 5 visitors to the County’s Health and Human Services offices, who were likely eligible for the tax credit, had heard of it.
As a state, California is upping the ante in its fight against poverty. Last year, the CalEITC was funded with $400 million annually; the proposed latest budget would raise that to $1 billion. To make full use of that funding, DCBA is determined to promote the EITC by formulating an outreach plan that builds awareness of the tax credit into the everyday operations of government agencies, community groups and non-profits. Given the county’s size and diversity (more than 200 languages are spoken there), this will be the largest ever regional effort to promote use of the EITC, one that can serve as a model for other large cities seeking to reduce poverty. To support this work, the County of Los Angeles will partner with FUSE Corps to host an executive-level fellow for one year who will exercise the role of stakeholder convener, foster agreement on strategic data-sharing to increase utilization of the EITC and formulate a plan that incorporates daily access to information about the EITC across all relevant agencies on a county-wide basis.
PROJECT SUMMARY & POTENTIAL DELIVERABLES
The following provides a general overview of the proposed fellowship project. This project summary and the potential deliverables that follow will be collaboratively revisited by the host agency, the fellow, and FUSE staff during the first few months of the fellowship, after which a revised scope of work will be developed and agreed upon by the FUSE Fellow and the host agency.
Starting in October 2019, it is proposed the FUSE Fellow will conduct an overview of the network of county agencies, and the size and diversity of the public they serve. That will be followed by consultation with DCBA and CFE management prior to engaging a wide range of stakeholders – government agencies, community groups and non-profits. Spearheading this process, the fellow will act as spokesperson for greater use of the EITC, soliciting cooperation in two ways: first, to find out what County data is available in order to identify likely candidates for the tax refund and; second, to determine the protocol for utilizes relevant County data to optimize EITC outreach to eligible individuals. This protocol will have to resolve any privacy, legal and feasibility issues that may arise. The end product of this process will be a concrete outreach plan to integrate the EITC into day-to-day operations across the entire spectrum of county social service agencies, community groups and non-profits. This plan is the fellow’s main priority over the course of the year. The secondary focus, time-permitting, will be to help the CFE develop a strategy to recruit and train tax preparation volunteers to keep up with growing demand.
The fellow’s success in the endeavor will be evaluated based on several factors. Solid project management abilities are necessary to conceive and execute an ambitious agenda, one that will require a creative approach to data strategy as well as significant stakeholder engagement skills. Specifically, the fellow will employ strong listening and communications skills to ensure buy-in around an EITC outreach plan. While the goal itself is clearly a worthy one, getting there will require inspiring busy people to become even busier to follow through on the plan. By the end of the year, the DCBA will have a working plan to expand use of the EITC in hand and ready for implementation.
- Conduct a landscape analysis: Get an overall picture of the county’s economy, demography and social services provided by government agencies, community groups and non-profits. Begin consultations with DCBA and CFE management to prepare an agenda for convening stakeholders on the subject of EITC outreach.
- Engage stakeholders: In a series of meetings with social service providers and County agencies, present the DCBA’s EITC objectives and explain that stakeholders can help by sharing data that identifies likely candidates for the tax return. Align EITC objectives with departmental-level goals and identify leverage points for engaging segments of the target population that are shared across agencies. Recognize and address concerns based on privacy, legal or feasibility issues.
- Develop a countywide EITC utilization plan: Work towards developing a mutually agreeable protocol for utilizing data to optimize EITC outreach and for coordinated outreach to potential EITC candidates, i.e., the DCBA provides a toolkit about the EITC that respective agencies/groups offer to clients. Based on these consultations, and analysis and recommendations emerging from stakeholder engagement, develop a detailed strategic plan that sets out defined goals, specific actions, organizational structures, timetables for implementation, methods for measuring outcomes and steps to take in executing a coordinated outreach strategy.
- Develop strategy to recruit tax preparation volunteers: In anticipation of growing demand for the EITC, convene non-profits that provide free tax preparation services and create a holistic strategy that determines how many volunteers are needed and where, especially in underserved unincorporated communities, and how the County can leverage existing County contractors and start to increase the volunteer pool.
- Joseph M. Nicchitta, Director, Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs
- Rafael Carbajal, Chief Deputy Director, Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs
- Dawnnesha Smith, Chief, Center for Financial Empowerment, Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs
- At least 15 years of professional experience in project management and/or strategic planning, with high-level leadership, stakeholder engagement and communication skills.
- Superior critical thinking and analytical skills.
- Ability to synthesize complex information into clear and concise recommendations.
- Ability to relate to a wide variety of diverse audiences with strong emotional intelligence and empathy.
- Excellent stakeholder engagement skills and the ability to use facilitative leadership techniques to coordinate stakeholder activities.
- Self-motivated, goal-oriented, entrepreneurial leader who can also be an independent worker.
- Persistent in obtaining information and creatively resourceful in identifying solutions to complex problems.
- Ability to create direction and movement within potentially resistant
- Exceptional written and verbal communication skills with an ease in public presentations.
- Understands the need for solutions to support all people in a community regardless of race, religion, gender, immigration status, or ethnicity.