The 2020 Census is a pivotal event for every city in the country. Billions of federal dollars and hundreds of programs from Medicaid to special education and school lunches depend at least in part on the Census count.
A robust and accurate count in urban areas often depends on local government and non-profits’ ability to engage and convince traditionally undercounted, marginalized groups, to participate in the Census.
The same populations eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), primarily low-income families with young children, are also among the most under-counted and an integrated strategy to increase the number of people who file for EITC can potentially reap big benefits for Census participation.
Key elements in implementing a joint EITC–Census Campaign
A 2016 study showed that over 26,000 eligible Detroit households did not apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), leaving upwards of $80 million a year unclaimed. This study propelled Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to partner with the Accounting Aid Society and United Way for Southeastern Michigan to increase both the amount of the EITC credit and the number of EITC filings. In 2017, the city launched a public awareness campaign to expand the EITC, based on a successful effort that began several years earlier in New York City.
The Detroit 2020 Census Campaign had been working for almost a year when the EITC working group began its preparations for the launch of the 2020 EITC campaign.
As a member of the EITC working group for the previous three years, I began discussing with Accounting Aid and another leading VITA provider, Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, ways to integrate the 2020 Census with the 2020 EITC campaign. We identified four ways to operationalize this integration:
- Incorporate key Census messages into the VITA training:
In January 2020, Accounting Aid and Wayne Metro incorporated the city’s Census materials into VITA training for staff and volunteers. These included census messages targeted to low-income families about why the Census matters. In addition, Wayne Metro donated 200 tablets to the Detroit Census effort.
- Provide Census Assistance (CAC) at VITA Sites:
The city has created a network of 150 sites, including 12 VITA sites, where residents can fill out the Census online. These sites include health clinics, libraries, recreation centers, and social service agencies. Some sites will have a census only kiosk, others a computer with a direct link to the Census Bureau form and all sites will have signage identifying it as a place to fill out the census online.
- Census and EITC Billboards:
As each campaign begins, billboards have been placed across the city, with separate messages that promote the EITC and the Census. In April several joint billboards will go up with the message: “It’s Not Too Late! Claim your Earned Income Tax Credit and fill out your Census Form”
- Flyers in VITA tax returns:
At all virtual and in-person VITA sites, the city’s Census kicker card will be placed in every tax return. Each site will have kicker cards on the counter that will include a link to the census online form and the national toll-free number.
The actions Detroit has taken to promote both the Census and the EITC can be undertaken by any local government as long as it has willing partners who understand the mutual benefits to both campaigns. At the heart of both efforts is equity: returning a fairer share of the city’s tax dollars to improve the lives of low-income children and families.
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