As I write this, the U.S. is approaching 1.2 million people diagnosed with COVID-19 and 75,000 deaths. So, why am I, a pediatrician, writing about federal income tax programs? Because, while my colleagues and I are doing all we can to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and support those medically affected, it’s also important to look more holistically at how we can support our patients and their families in ways that don’t involve direct patient care.
Health is a product of several factors, many of which have nothing to do with biology. There are a lot of social factors that affect health, one of the most important of which is poverty. While I, sadly, don’t have a prescription to “treat” poverty, I can still work to break down the barriers many people face in obtaining the resources to attain their highest level of health. To that end, one of the most important things you can do for yourself or your family right now, if you haven’t already, is to file your taxes. Specifically, file your taxes so that you can 1) get your refunds, and 2) have a return on file to be able to quickly receive your stimulus checks.
Are you thinking you didn’t work enough to get a lot back? That’s OK. You may be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which is for low- to moderate-income working individuals and couples, especially those with children, and can give you a tax refund. The EITC is also a refundable credit, meaning that you can claim it even if you owe no tax. Your specific circumstances may vary, but for 2019 returns, the EITC can be up to $6,557 (it averaged $2,476 in 2018). Unfortunately, 20% of eligible individuals don’t claim the EITC – please don’t be in that population this year.
Do you have kids? The Child Tax Credit (CTC) is available to qualified families with a child under age 17, with a maximum credit per child of $2,000 ($1,400 of which is refundable even if you own no income taxes). In 2018, these two credits combined to lift 5.5 million children out of poverty and make another 6.4 million less poor. Not a prescription for alleviating poverty entirely but not a bad start.
Can you not afford to pay to get your taxes done? Not a problem. There are professional tax services available, for free, to individuals meeting certain income requirements. One organization involved in this work is the Campaign for Working Families (www.cwfphilly.org/virtual),which helps working families and individuals achieve economic empowerment by providing free tax preparation, resource building, and asset development. You can file online, right now, and have your taxes reviewed by an expert virtually.
April 15 is usually Tax Day. But, this year, that was the day many families received a bonus from the government. There is an extension for filing Pennsylvania state and federal income tax returns until July 15. By claiming what is owed to you, you may be able to get a critical infusion of cash. And, in the meantime, remember to take the appropriate steps to protect yourself and your loved ones. That’s doctor’s orders.
George Dalembert, M.D., MSHP is a pediatrician in Philadelphia. He leads Medical Financial Partnership work that includes clinic-based income tax preparation (focused on the EITC and CTC) and financial counseling (to maximize patient/families’ assets and decrease their liability). Both are supported with funding from the Possibilities Project and Healthier Together initiatives at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. By helping community members to claim the money owed to them, and manage it, Dalembert seeks to empower families to better address the factors that inevitably affect their health but don’t necessarily have a billable diagnosis.