It’s that time again, another Wonky Word Wednesday. With many Montanans receiving their W2s and free tax prep sites opening their doors this week across the state, tax season is officially off and running.
Let’s delve into a service that makes it easier for you to get more of what you earn back and invest in your community. Today’s wonky word is VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance).
VITA is an IRS program that was created in 1971 to help low-and moderate-income taxpayers receive free tax filing assistance. Visiting a local VITA site enables individuals to file taxes without errors, receive their refunds sooner, and claim credits that can be overlooked, like the federal earned income tax credit (EITC), or deductions for students paying for college.
Every year, fellow Montanans around the state volunteer their time – usually from January through April – first becoming IRS-certified volunteers and then helping individuals in their community file electronic income tax returns free of charge.
Individuals with yearly incomes of $54,000 or less and with fairly straightforward returns qualify for free services through VITA sites and can pick from many site locations. This year, organizations focused on improving Montanans’ financial security, like Montana Credit Unions for Community Development and Rural Dynamics, Inc., are operating over 60 VITA sites located from Missoula to Glendive and in between.
Additionally, 25 free tax assistance sites through AARP are also located throughout Montana, geared toward providing individualized tax preparation for low-and middle-income seniors. However, non-AARP members can also receive free tax filing support through these Tax-Aide sites too.
Did you know that tomorrow is National Girls and Women in Sports Day?
To celebrate, we thought we would do some digging into pay equity in sports.
Sports that deserve recognition:
Marathons – The World Marathon Majors is a series that includes six of the largest and most well known marathons in the world, including New York, Boston, London, Tokyo, Berlin, and Chicago. Winning men and women receive equal prize money when they participate.
Tennis – In 2007, Venus Williams shamed the All England Club (which hosts Wimbledon) into paying both male and female champions the same prize money. There is a whole documentary about how she did it called “Venus Vs.” Now all four grand slam tournaments pay the same amount to male and female players.
Surfing – In 2012, after undergoing new ownership, the World Surf League made a policy to pay men and women equal prize money.
Sports that should be embarrassed:
Golf – The total prize money for the PGA tour is more than five times that of the Ladies PGA, a difference of more than $275 million a year.
Basketball – In the WNBA, female basketball players can earn between $38,913 and to $109,500 annually. However, in the NBA, male basketball players’ salaries range from a low of $525,093 to a maximum of $16 million per year. To be clear, the maximum salary for a professional female basketball player is only 20% of the minimum salary for a male basketball player.
Soccer – After winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the US team won $2 million in prize money. Compare this to the staggering $35 million awarded to Germany’s men’s team, which won the year before. The US men’s team – who placed 11th – collected $9 million.
Clearly, equal pay isn’t just an issue for everyday workers. As a reminder, women in Montana make 67.5 cents to every dollar men make. Montana women earn less than men in every occupational category and industry, despite the fact that more women have high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees than men.
We know that Superbowl is coming up, but in the next week take some time to appreciate women in sports. There are plenty of talented athletes in high schools and colleges to cheer on. And be sure to take your sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews with you.
Note: Much of the information in this post was found at the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The open enrollment period for accessing private insurance on the Marketplace exchange ended last night at midnight. However, those who missed the deadline may qualify for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP) — generally triggered by a change in circumstances, such as:
- moving to a new state, or to a place within the same state where different Qualified Health Plans (QHPs) are available;
- losing other health coverage;
- gaining or becoming a dependent (e.g., through marriage, birth, adoption, placement for adoption or in foster care, a child support order or other court order);
- meeting other “exceptional circumstances”.
It’s also important to note that there is no deadline for enrolling in Medicaid. To find information on eligible income levels and how to enroll, go to www.covermt.org or http://dphhs.mt.gov/healthcare.
It’s EITC Awareness Day! We’ve talked in the past about how the federal credit is one of the best anti-poverty programs to date, and how a state EITC can further build Montana families’ financial security. It’s been a while since we posted on the topic so in case you’ve forgotten why the EITC matters for Montana, let’s revisit the highlights:
The federal EITC is one of the best solutions to reduce poverty
The federal EITC was established in 1975 and has consistently received bi-partisan support because it has proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty.
In 2013, the federal EITC lifted over 9 million people out of poverty nationwide, including 6 million children. The EITC’s success centers on its ability to reward work. The refundable credit offsets the amount workers owe in federal taxes. If a worker’s credit exceeds the amount he or she owes, the individual receives a refund, which for many families, helps cover basics like utilities, or pays for auto repairs so they have a reliable way to get to work.
The federal credit not only supports working parents, but research shows that it also benefits the next generation. When parents have more income to cover things like doctor visits or provide breakfast each morning, children do better in school. And a stronger start in life sets children up to do well later on.
Children who move out of poverty early on are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and have higher future earnings. Frankly, the EITC is the best way to lift children out of poverty, period. Without it, the number of children living in poverty would be 25% higher than it is today.
Finally, because the federal EITC makes work pay, families have more money to spend at their local businesses, which strengthens the economy overall. In fact, in 2012, the federal EITC put about $170 million dollars back into Montana’s local communities.
Creating a state EITC would build on the proven success of a federal credit
In 2012, 85,000 Montana families received the federal credit and almost two-thirds of these families lived in rural areas. Boosting family income is especially important because Montana is one of the few states that impose income taxes on people living in poverty.
Consider this. In Montana, a single mother with two children who works full-time and earns minimum wage is living in poverty. Creating a state EITC and combining it with a federal EITC would effectively raise her wage by $3.00 per hour.
Legislators can bring Montana in line with the 26 other states that have chosen to support working-class families by creating a state EITC. When working families thrive, we all do.
A quick look at the CFED’s Assets and Opportunities Scorecard, and you will find that Montana ranks best in outcome and policy measures related to Housing and Homeownership.
It’s true that Montana has fared far better than many states across the nation in the rates of foreclosures, and overall, Montana ranks high for the number of 2-parent households who own their own home. We can applaud the legislature for enacting laws to protect homeowners from foreclosure, and entities like NeighborWorks have worked hand-in-hand with government to provide foreclosure assistance and first-time homebuyer education programs.
With that said, when we begin to examine housing affordability, the numbers tell a different story. Many homeowners and renters in Montana are struggling with high mortgages, rents, and utilities.
Among homeowners, almost one in three reported spending at least 30 percent of their household income on mortgage costs alone. And almost half of all renters in the state reported spending the same amount on rent and utilities. When housing and rental costs exceed 30% of a household’s income, it dramatically impacts their ability to afford critical necessities like food, transportation, healthcare and investment in savings.
Families continue to struggle to afford housing because most workers’ wages are not commensurate with Montana’s housing costs. The current median housing value in Montana is over 4 times the amount that a typical worker earns annually. While high home values are good for those who already own a home, exorbitant costs leave many unable to buy a house or begin to build equity in their home. And with the number of low-wage jobs in the state, there are simply not enough opportunities for workers to earn enough to purchase a home and keep their families financially stable.
We can do better to support working-class families. Even in the face of low-wages, there are options that help low-and-moderate income families find housing.
On Monday, the Montana Board of Housing announced this year’s awardees for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. Out of 19 eligible projects, 8 were funded, leaving 11 projects on the table. All of these projects are well thought out and would fill critical housing needs in their communities. Most states have some state designated pool of funding specifically to support the preservation and development of affordable housing. Our state does not, and it is a clear gap in resources that should be filled.
Another area our state should look to improve is the way we approach titling of manufactured housing as real property. Manufactured housing is a significant source of affordable housing in our state, and allowing this housing to be titled as real property creates opportunities for better financing and a more valuable asset for these homeowners. Although Montana allows titling as real property, the system is inefficient and difficult to navigate. Montana should streamline our titling process and look to the recently developed Uniform Manufactured Housing Act as a model to emulate.
The CFED report points to these and other good housing policies across the country that may be relevant for our state. We encourage policy makers to review these options, and look to the Montana Coalition for Housing and Infrastructure to identify and advocate for smart housing policy initiatives in the next legislative session.
Kaia Peterson is the Assistant Director of Statewide Operations at NeighborWorks Montana. NeighborWorks Montana’s mission is to “create opportunities for families and individuals to live in affordable homes in strong communities” throughout the state.
Have you ever wondered how you can learn more about how Montana families are faring and what types of solutions are available to support them? Today, we’ll look at a comprehensive tool that sheds light on the financial security of Montana families and policies that could help them better make ends meet.
Every year, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) releases its Assets and Opportunity Scorecard, measuring the economic security of families in each state and highlighting how policies help or hurt their ability to make ends meet.
There are a number of scorecards and studies out there, but we find this scorecard to be one of the most helpful. It not only provides solid data, but also workable solutions that other states have implemented to help strengthen families’ economic security.
The scorecard is organized into five categories:
- Financial Assets and Income
- Businesses and Jobs
- Housing and Homeownership
- Health Care
New this year is the policy change map, which let’s you see policy gains and losses in each state.
CFED uses two measures – outcomes and policies – to better understand financial security in each state. Overall, Montana ranks 15th in outcomes. These outcomes measure things like rates of poverty, unemployment, and homeownership. CFED also lists policy opportunities to support families. Over the next week, we will dig deeper into some of the data and policy solutions, but here is a quick overview on how Montana fares:
Financial Assets and Income
Nearly one in six households in Montana are living in poverty, and there remains a large gap between high-wage and low-to-moderate wage earners. Over one-fourth of Montana households do not have a savings account.
Enacting a state earned income tax credit (EITC) is one of the best ways to supplement working parents’ income, helping them to catch up on bills, put food on the table, and rise out of poverty. Eliminating asset tests for programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) help people focus on saving for the future and achieving self-sufficiency. Finally, tax fairness reforms are key to ensuring that corporations and wealthy Montanans are paying their fair share for the things we all need, like schools, police, and roads.
Business and Jobs
For the second year in a row, Montana scores high with small-businesses. However, almost one-in-three jobs are low-wage. Montana workers report that they feel underemployed – many want to work full-time, but are only offered part-time positions – and unemployment rates are twice as high for workers of color.
Enacting paid family and medical leave would help working parents better balance work and home demands by taking time off to attend to their own health needs or that of a family member without risking their financial security. Increasing unemployment benefits so that workers receive an adequate weekly wage while unemployed would help parents afford the basic needs while they search for long-term work opportunities.
With Medicaid expansion just recently up and running, it is not surprising that Montana still ranks low on health care outcomes. Montana has already enrolled over 22,000 individuals in affordable health care coverage. We know expansion will have a significant impact on the uninsured rate, and we look forward to seeing how we will compare in 2017.
We encourage you to visit the scorecard. Play around – it’s a lot of fun! And learn more about how Montana families are doing. Also, please follow us this week as we dig deeper into specific policy issues related to the scorecard.
MBPC is seeking a State-Tribal Policy Analyst to join our team. This position, established in 2011, will conduct research and analysis on state fiscal issues and policies that have an impact on Indian Country in Montana. This position will promote sound fiscal and budget policy that can help reverse the history of economic injustice that has led many American Indians to unacceptable levels of poverty, unemployment, and poor health. Working with the rest of the MBPC team, the goal is to inform policymakers on how tax and budget choices affect Indian Country and to increase participation among American Indians in advocacy for sufficient investment in the state budget.
A complete position announcement, duties and experience, and required eduction and experience can be found here.
With only two days left in the year, we decided to take a look back and remember what a great year 2015 was.
Together, in 2015, we:
- Passed Medicaid expansion providing tens of thousands of Montanan access to affordable health care.
- Defeated dozens of irresponsible tax cuts that would have drained our state of critical resources needed to invest in our communities.
- Released cutting edge research on paid family leave, tribal colleges, earned income tax credit, and more.
- Formed two new partnerships with the Women’s Foundation of Montana and the Montana Health Care Foundation.
- Made real progress toward establishing a Montana earned income tax credit to help working families make ends meet.
- And much, much more.
It really was a year to be proud of, and we wanted to take a second to say thank you. Whether you wrote a letter to the editor, called your legislator, talked to your friends about Medicaid expansion, donated to MBPC, or simply became more informed by reading our blog, you helped make 2015 one where the lives of our low-income neighbors will be a little bit better.
Unfortunately, 2015 is also the year we say goodbye to our long time staff member, Laura John. Laura has served as the State Tribal Policy Specialist, and her perspective and dedication was critical to our work. We will miss Laura, but we wish her all the best as she begins her next adventure.
MBPC is committed to continuing the groundbreaking work Laura started, and we know she leaves big shoes to fill.
We wish you and your family a fun and safe New Years. We look to next year when we will work on issues like paid family and medical leave, EITC, affordable childcare, pre-Kindergarten, and so much more. Together we can accomplish great things in 2016.
Shifting work and family structures in the 21st century highlight the need for workplace policies that help parents balance caregiving and career demands. In collaboration with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the Montana Budget and Policy Center will conduct three reports on paid leave. This is the first report, which uses evidence from state-initiated paid leave programs, and national studies to examine how paid leave benefits families, businesses, and the economy.
>>>Read our first report: Paid Family and Medial Leave: Supporting Families, Businesses, and the Economy here.
Today is Veteran’s Day and our team here at the MBPC wants to thank the men and women who have served or continue to serve our country. One great way we can thank and support our veterans and military families here in Montana is to protect policies that ensure their financial security.
There are approximately 88,000 veterans and military service members that call Montana home. These men and women know the meaning of sacrifice. But too often they return home to face further challenges, like making ends meet for their families and translating their skills into good-paying jobs. Tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) help sustain working veterans and their families by boosting their income and making it possible to pay for things like housing expenses, utilities, transportation, and groceries.
In 2014, 12,000 veteran and military families received the EITC or the refundable portion of the CTC. These working family tax credits are one of the best solutions to keeping families from falling below the poverty line. These credits create a path toward a sustainable future by allowing them to work their way out of poverty and keep more of what they earn.
Unfortunately, unless Congress acts, up to 7,000 Montana families that currently receive these federal credits stand to lose all or a part of it 2017. For a single veteran with two kids who works full-time and earns minimum wage ($16,744 annually), he or she would stand to lose all or a portion of a $5,500 EITC. This loss of income could mean putting off car payments, forgoing utility or rent payments, or purchasing fewer groceries to make ends meet.
Right now, our elected officials have one of the best opportunities to ensure that key provisions of the EITC and CTC do not expire in 2017. We hope that Congress will stand up and support our veterans and military families by choosing to protect the working-family tax credits that ensure these families’ financial security. Military members should not have to return home and live in poverty. They’ve sacrificed enough for us, now let’s protect them and their families.
See the following to learn how Congress can protect veterans and military families: