Tax time is a big deal.
Some kids look forward to their birthdays, or holidays. When I was young, my brother and I looked forward to tax time. It meant we could finally buy a second pair of shoes, or pants that fit. My mom would worry less for a little while about how we were going to pay for medical care, school supplies, and food.
Tax season followed the winter holidays. My family struggled to pay the bills, so the holidays were quiet. We tried to focus on giving instead of receiving. When spring came, we would get excited. Many young children don’t know what taxes are. But for us, tax time always meant a small refund check that brought temporary relief from financial worries.
The rest of the year, those worries were constant.
Sometimes I would get tooth cavities, but we couldn’t afford to get them filled. My teeth would hurt so badly that I didn’t want to eat. Eventually we had to go to the dentist, and that was a big bill, because we couldn’t afford insurance. When one of us was bitten by a dog and had to see a doctor, that was a big bill. Unavoidable expenses like those added up quickly throughout the year, and we were pushed into debt. We’d get those red bills in the mail threatening to shut off our utilities.
Tax time offered some relief. For low-income working families like mine, the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit both allow workers to keep more of their income to pay for basic needs, through a modest refund at tax time.
I know just how critical refundable tax credits were to my family growing up, but I also know that there are gaps in the policies that means millions of families and workers are still left out. And now today as a young adult, I’m one of them.
I worked full-time all through high school to help my family cover expenses. When I got to college, I paid for my own tuition and books. I bought myself health insurance and braces. I got my own car and car insurance.
But when tax time came for the first time, I owed $700. I made enough to get charged taxes, but too little to cover my daily living. I didn’t have $700, and I didn’t know where I was going to get it from. I went into overdrive, working extra hours at my jobs to pay it back. My grades started to suffer and my GPA began to drop. Working more hours also came with implications for the next tax return.
If I had been older, I would have qualified for the Earned Income Tax Credit, but the irony is that the youngest working adults are left out. I don’t qualify for it because I’m under 25. If they moved the cutoff from age 25 to age 18 or even 20, it would help so many young people like me who are working to get ahead. Qualifying for the EITC would provide a crucial buffer.
Sometimes, my money worries can seem overwhelming, like the time I had complications after tonsil surgery. I was bleeding from my stitches, but I couldn’t go the emergency room because of the cost. Eventually it healed, but I had to drop a class because of that incident. And that drop fee hit hard. All these dominos can fall unexpectedly.
There are a lot of people left out of these tax credits. I can’t imagine growing up without getting that absolutely critical refund check at tax time. The credit can mean that there’s food on the table, books for school, and the lights stay on. But because of gaps in the design of the Earned Income Tax Credit, current laws still actively tax more than 5 million people into poverty or further into poverty. And one in three children in low-income families isn’t eligible for the full Child Tax Credit. If Congress is going to do anything to the tax code this fall, these fixes need to be at the top of their list.
My experiences matter
I realized the value of raising my voice and sharing my story when I met with a member of Congress at the RESULTS International Conference last year. He made a comment about young people’s work ethic that I disagreed with. At first I was reluctant to speak up, but I gathered the courage to share my story with his aide before I left. The aide grabbed me and said, “Thank you – you are one of the constituents that the congressman needs to hear from.” In that moment, I knew advocacy had changed my life.
It’s really powerful to help everyday people realize their voices. No matter who you are or what life experiences you’ve had, you can contribute. You bring your own perspective on poverty directly to decision makers. It’s empowering. I encourage people to join the RESULTS movement, with the understanding that they’ll be helping family, friends, and maybe people who they’ll never know. It can be so fulfilling in life.
Aaron Carrillo is a RESULTS Expert on Poverty and RESULTS Fellowship alum. He is a senior at the University of Kansas, and lives in Lawrence, Kansas. The content of this piece was also presented by Aaron in a congressional briefing on tax policy in October 2019.