VITA Awareness Day: VITA volunteers help Montanans build financial security.

Today is VITA Awareness Day! To help us celebrate, our partner with Montana Credit Unions for Community Development highlights the impact of VITA sites in Montana.

For many folks, tax season can be a stressful time. For over a decade, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites have been trusted spaces in Montana communities where working families can go to get help in filling out their income taxes. The VITA program provides low-and moderate-income families access to free and easy tax-preparation services, and nationally, has put billions of dollars back into the pockets of hard working Americans.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 3.37.46 PM

In Montana, IRS-certified volunteers in over 60 VITA sites and numerous Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) sites offer their community members a free alternative to more costly, and sometimes predatory, tax preparation services. In 2015, volunteers serving in VITA/TCE sites helped return over $16 million dollars in federal income taxes to more than 16,000 working Montanans. Because these services do not cost eligible filers a dime and have far lower error rates than self-and paid-tax preparers, tax filers are able to claim more of what they earn, which helps them better make ends meet, build financial stability, and save for the future.

VITA volunteers also help raise awareness about the federal earned income tax credit (EITC) and ensure that working Montanans claim the credit at the correct amount. Research shows that the EITC lifts millions of working families out of poverty every year, encourages single parents to work more, and improves children’s school performance and earnings later in life. But while the EITC is regarded as one of the best anti-poverty programs in history, 20 percent of eligible tax filers do not claim the credit.

Last year, VITA/TCE volunteers in Montana helped provide over $5 million to 4,000 low-income working families through the EITC. These families were able to use their refunds to get caught up on bills, pay for basic necessities, like food and utilities, and cover expenses like car repairs, which helps secure a reliable form of transportation to get to and from work.

Every year, the VITA program helps low-and moderate-income working families make the most of their refunds, which improves their financial security and supports local economies. If you haven’t filed your federal income taxes yet, you may be eligible to receive free preparation services at a local VITA site. To learn more, check out Montana Free File.

Carin McClain is the Tax Program Manager with Montana Credit Unions for Community Development (MCUCD). In her role, she recruits and manages volunteers, directs tax law trainings, helps coordinate the statewide MVP Coalition, and works to build capacity and sustainability for her program.

President requests funding for 2Gen initiatives in 2017 Budget

Yesterday, we covered 2Gen as our Wonky Word Wednesday. Today, let’s see how President Obama has considered 2Gen initiatives in his 2017 budget.

Reforming Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – TANF is a federal program that provides a safety net for families living in severe poverty. For the most part, TANF provides families with cash assistance so they can meet their basic needs, like paying for rent or buying groceries. However, while TANF has many flaws, it is an example of how to look at services from a 2Gen angle. For example, TANF includes both work supports for parents and subsidized child care for children. But policymakers can do more to improve TANF, and we’re pleased to see the President’s budget includes some of those changes.

Based on the proposed budget, the federal TANF program stands to benefit in two major ways. First, because TANF funding is not adjusted yearly to account for inflation, funding has lost up to 30% of its value since the mid 1990s. To make up for some of this lost value, President Obama’s budget proposes to invest an additional $8 billion dollars into the program over the next five years

Second, the budget proposes to shift up to $100 million in TANF funds to better support core programs, including work supports and subsidized child care for parents and families, and mental health and educational activities for children.

Reducing Child Poverty in Rural Areas – To combat poverty in rural communities throughout America, the budget also proposes an investment in 2Gen initiatives that will align early childhood education programs for children and workforce development programs for their parents, in an effort to put families on track to economic security. This includes $16 million to support early childhood education and parental involvement programs in schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and serving American Indian families.

These are just a few of the investments that President Obama’s 2017 budget proposes and it is the first time a president’s budget has specifically requested funding for 2Gen initiatives. We hope that Congress seriously considers these requests and recognize that these programs strengthen families’ educational, economic, social, and health outcomes from one generation to the next.

Wonky Word Wednesdays: Two-Generation (2Gen)

For today’s Wonky Word Wednesday, we’ll examine an approach aimed to support families experiencing poverty, called a two-generation method. And tomorrow, we’ll then talk about some of these approaches and how policymakers can support them.

Too often, policies aimed to reduce poverty focus on either children or their parents, not the whole family. Solutions miss the mark when they focus just on children, without addressing issues like work support for their parents.

A two-generation (often referred to as 2Gen) approach creates policy or programmatic solutions that move the entire family toward economic security. The Aspen Institute’s project on 2Gen has identified four core components that individuals should focus on in order to create impacts that will pass from one generation to the next:2gen

Education – When parents have access to quality and affordable education and workforce development programs for themselves, they earn more – and in turn – can better provide for their children. Likewise, children need access to quality early childhood education programs, like pre-kindergarten. When they do, they perform better in school, are less likely to commit crimes as adults, and have higher earnings later in life. These two components can often be provided simultaneously. For example, Flathead Valley Community College provides a state-of-the-art pre-kindergarten program on campus for students, faculty and the community.

Social Capital – Social capital refers to the networks of relationships that individuals have in their communities, which provide them with information, resources, and support. Families rely on these trusted networks among their friends, family members, neighbors, work colleagues, and local organizations in order to get what they need to thrive. For example, parents with access to affordable and quality child care providers are able to remain working and have the piece of mind that their children are in a safe environment.

Economic Supports – Access to financial education and asset building opportunities, like savings accounts, increase parents’ earnings and put them on a path toward a stable financial future. For example, efforts to provide parents with the ability to save for a child’s college education provides the direct benefit of making post-secondary education more feasible for the child, but it also helps build the parents’ skills and understanding in the importance of saving.

Additionally, research shows that children who move out of poverty early in life benefit as adults. For example, children of parents who receive the federal earned income tax credit are more likely to attend college and have higher earnings later in life.

Health and Well-Being – families need access to programs that enable them to remain healthy and ensure their well-being, including mental health services and addressing negative childhood experiences. While Montana has provided access to health care for hundreds of thousands of children in Montana, it is also important to provide affordable access to health care for their parents as well. With Medicaid expansion in Montana, low-income parents can afford health care and take preventative measures for themselves and their children. Healthy parents remain working and providing for their families and healthy children remain in school and learning.

Applying these core principals to programs, policies, and research – at both the state and federal level – will help families build economic security that extends from one generation to the next. Stay tuned to learn how President Obama used 2Gen in his 2017 budget.


On FMLA’s 23rd anniversary, poll shows that it’s time for paid leave

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the enactment of the Family Medical and Leave Act, our nation’s unpaid leave law. Much has changed since its creation and today, working Americans need PAID leave in order to balance work and home demands.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 10.43.49 AM

Congress passed the FMLA in 1993. The federal law provides employees who work at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months and who are employed by businesses with 50 or more workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a new child, a sick family member, or to recover from their own serious illness. Workers taking FMLA are also guaranteed job protection so employers cannot fire them during this leave.

While the FMLA provides working families greater protection, many working Americans – and Montanans – do not qualify for the FMLA. And even among those who do qualify, many employees cannot afford to take unpaid time off work.

Debra Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women and Families, which led the fight to enact FMLA in 1993, states that “America’s workplace policies have failed to keep pace with the realities of people’s lives” and that workers need something better.

A new poll from the National Partnership for Women and Families shows support for paid leave across party lines, racial and ethnic groups, and men and women. Results show that:

  • 4 out of 5 likely 2016 voters think it is important for elected officials to update the FMLA in order to guarantee paid family and medical leave.
  • 76 percent of voters would support a national paid family and medical leave insurance program that would offer workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave.
  • Voters are far more likely to feel their elected official understands their family needs if the official supports a paid family and medical leave law.

Currently, only 13 percent of working Americans have access to paid family leave through their employers, and fewer than 40 percent have access to medical leave through their employers’ temporary disability insurance programs.

While the FMLA was a step in the right direction, it is clear that voters want the peace of mind that they can take time off to attend to their own health needs or care for a family member and remain financially secure. Lawmakers who support paid leave legislation will prove to their constituents that they understand today’s families, share their values, and are working to create better opportunities that strengthen families, businesses, and the economy overall.

GUEST BLOG: Balancing Work and Family without Paid Leave

Today, the Montana Budget and Policy Center will hear from one Montanan and her story of trying to balance family and work.


Like many people of my generation, I have what is called a “patchwork” income. I teach online writing classes part-time for the University of Montana, Central Texas College and occasionally other schools. I also do freelance writing, editing and instructional design to make ends meet. I am a hard worker–in fact I really enjoy working and keeping busy. None of the schools I work for have ever offered me full-time work, or even have full-time positions available. I organized my life around this reality, paying for private health insurance and working my own retirement accounts into shape. All of that was fine with me until I became a mother.

Because of my “patchwork” income, I don’t get much time off. None of my positions offer me sick leave, maternity leave, or any type of paid family leave as a part-time or contract employee. So, hours after the births of both of my daughters I did something I should not have had to do–I opened my laptop and got to work. During the first few sleepless months, I chugged some espresso each morning and graded papers. And the next day, I graded more papers. Regardless of my hard work and loyalty to these institutions and their students, I did not get maternity leave.

Natalie pictureHaving to live this way is not good for me–but I can handle that. I can set my own needs aside. But it is also not good for my daughters, whose mother has to balance a set of unfair demands. It is hard to be calm and refreshed while juggling so much. It is also not good for my students, who pay tuition and are pretty sure a real professor is on the other end of their WiFi signal, not just a disposable contract employee with no long-term ties to the institution.

I am lucky, though. I have a supportive husband and wonderful friends that have swooped in to save me along the way. I also had private insurance and a savings account. Many people in my situation do not have those things.

One would think women would have the right to some rest after the physical toll that having children takes on your body and the sleepless nights an infant brings after that. Children should have the right to a rested, devoted mother, at least for a little while.

Being a working mom is hard, but it would have been a bit easier if I had time to heal and care for my newborn children. As I look forward, it’s scary to think that, by not having access to paid leave, I risk losing my income and even possibly my job, if anything serious should happen to my daughters, my husband, or myself. Paid leave would help me be a better mom, wife, teacher, employee, and member of my community. I’m excited about what is happening around the country with paid family and sick leave–I hope Montana pays attention.

Natalie Peeterse

Wonky Word Wednesdays: Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)

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.

Learn more here to see if a free tax site is located near you and what materials you may need.


National Girls and Women in Sports Day

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.

Open Enrollment Wraps Up, but Medicaid Enrollment Will Continue

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:

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 11.54.48 AM

  • 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”.

Montanans should visit the Marketplace website or to see if they qualify for a SEP.

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 or


It’s Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day!

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 

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.01.59 AM

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.

Learn about the federal EITC, if you qualify for the credit, and how much you could get back this tax season. And continue to follow our blog throughout this tax season to learn more.

GUEST BLOG: Montana scorecard shows families are still struggling to afford housing

To continue the discussion of the CFED 2016 Assets and Opportunities Scorecard, one of our partners, NeighborWorks Montana, has provided a deeper analysis on the housing and homeownership data.Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 2.12.37 PM

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.