By Mark Hedin/Ethnic Media Services
AMID the COVID-19 global pandemic, California has led the way in establishing a variety of supports to help people through a time of increased needs and reduced earnings.
At a town-hall meeting hosted by the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA) and Ethnic Media Services on June 24, experts described two new ones, the Golden State Stimulus and the Golden State Grant Program, that promise hundreds of dollars, or more, to millions of Californians, citizens or not.
The Golden State Stimulus — new this year — will provide $600-$1,200 payments to 4 million California taxpayers who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit on their California tax return, or made no more than $75,000 and use an ITIN (taxpayer ID) number.
Those who don’t qualify for those payments due to a lack of taxable earnings in 2020 may still be eligible for the Golden State Grant Program, which offers $600 payments to people relying on unemployment benefits, CalWorks, SSI, general relief, and other programs.
“There’s a lot of money that’s available,” said Audrey Casillas, with the Free Tax Prep Los Angeles program of the Koreatown Youth & Community Center which co-sponsored the briefing.
“One of the great things about the Golden State Stimulus is that it is available to undocumented taxpayers,” Casillas said. “This is what makes it so different from other assistance and tax programs that are available.”
Furthermore, Casillas said, these benefits would not become a factor in so-called “public charge” considerations factoring negatively in someone’s change-of-immigration-status application. “Taxpayers should not be worried about public charge,” she said.
She noted that the deadline to apply for the Golden State Stimulus is Oct. 15.
Casillas and the others also emphasized the importance of filing a tax return to establish eligibility for these and other benefit programs, and how there’s plenty of help for that, too.
The “VITA” program (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) enables low- to moderate-income taxpayers file their federal and state income tax returns for free. It can be accessed at the website: Freetaxprepla.com or by texting “tax credits LA” to 211-211.
“The Free Tax Prep LA campaign is a public-private partnership between the Housing and Community Investment Department of the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, Koreatown Youth and Community Center and United Ways of Greater Los Angeles,” Dawnnesha Smith, of the county’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, said. “We all work collaboratively.”
For those wary of free help, Smith said, “VITA preparers are IRS-certified, which means they’ve been through extensive training and they’ve passed certification exams. And there’s also annual re-certification requirements. Research has shown that VITA preparers have a roughly 93% accuracy rate, which is phenomenal and higher than paid preparers.”
If you have further doubts, the IRS website IRS.gov also has a list of VITA partner agencies.
Beyond providing crucial help in filing taxes, VITA organizations can also help people who can’t get a Social Security number to instead file the IRS’s W-7 application form to obtain an ITIN that would help them qualify for the larger Golden State Stimulus payment, Smith said.
Another reason for filing tax returns is their usefulness in applying for financial aid, home or business loans. “Regardless of citizenship status, a tax return is usually the first step,” Smith said, adding that “The first thing they’re going to ask for in immigration will be the record of your tax returns.”
Smith also noted that “the nonprofit organizations who are part of this (VITA) initiative provide a wide array of asset-building services, like financial coaching, banking assistance, bill-pay assistance, food assistance and rental assistance.”
“So please, ask your preparer about other programs and support services that are available within the organization,” she said.
“Wow, talk about getting your money’s worth! More so in that these are very trusted sources,” enthused OIA Director Rigo Reyes, who moderated the panel.
Casillas noted that other benefits accrue from filing taxes, such as the Child Tax Credit, which is available regardless of immigration status, usually worth about $2,000 but increased this year to about $3,600.
“It’s a lot of dollars coming down the pipeline,” she said, noting that Child Tax Credit payments, this year, are set to begin arriving in mid-July.
She also cited other tax benefits such as credits for spending on higher education and retirement accounts, and deductions for business expenses, which could be particularly valuable to self-employed people.
“Regardless of your income level, you could have money coming to you” she said.
Smith emphasized the wisdom of opening a bank account if you do not already have one. “Direct deposit is the fastest way to receive your stimulus payments and refunds,” she said. There’s help available here, also: The Department of Consumer and Business Affairs’ Center for Financial Empowerment has a “BankOn Los Angeles County” program, reachable via the website dcba.lacounty.gov, intended to increase access to reliable, low-cost bank accounts and help people avoid expensive alternatives.
Casillas also noted that California has been quicker than the federal government in terms of delays in distributing people’s stimulus money, with no backlog at all at a time when the IRS is still keeping millions of people waiting.