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Tax credits benefit low-income families

By Keryn Page

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The April 15 deadline sparks feelings of dread for many Mississippians, but tax season can be a much-needed financial boost for low- to moderate-income families.

Bobbie Shaffett, a Mississippi State University Extension Service family resource management specialist, said these families often are unaware of three tax credits that effectively could amount to a 40 percent raise.

"The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of our most effective anti-poverty tools for Mississippi families. In 2002, it lifted 4.9 million Americans -- including 2.8 million children -- out of poverty," Shaffett said. "The EIC refund can turn a $6 per hour job into an $8 per hour job, but a lot of people don't know they're eligible for the credit."

The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are refundable credits -- that means the federal government sends qualifying taxpayers a check for the credit amount, even if they owe no taxes. The Child and Dependent Care Credit is not refundable, but it will help offset any taxes owed.

Shaffett said the EIC was designed by the federal government to reduce the tax burden on low-wage workers and to encourage work. Individuals or families with two or more children who earn between $10,000 and $15,000 are eligible to receive the maximum credit of $4,300. The credit amount decreases as the income level drops or rises, or if only one child is claimed.

Workers who earned more than $10,750 in 2004 and claimed a child under age 17 as a dependent are eligible for the Child Tax Credit. This credit is worth up to $1,000 for each dependent child.

The Child and Dependent Care tax credit may provide 20 percent to 35 percent of the expenses paid for the care of a child or disabled dependent. Taxpayers can claim up to $3,000 for one dependent or $6,000 for two or more dependents.

"The intention of the federal government through these tax credits is to put money in the pockets of those Americans who need it most," Shaffett said. "To further help families, the Internal Revenue Service offers the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. At VITA sites, low- to moderate-income taxpayers -- those who make $36,000 or less -- can have their tax returns e-filed by a trained volunteer."

VITA sites are located in 43 Mississippi counties, and most offer electronic filing of tax returns. VITA sites generally are located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls and other convenient locations. To locate the nearest VITA site, call (800) 829-1040, or contact the local Extension office.

Shaffett said a major goal of the IRS and Extension Service tax education programs is to inform taxpayers about the drawbacks of refund anticipation loans offered by many commercial tax preparation companies.

"Average fees for e-filing by a commercial tax preparer range from $85 to $120, and can be as much as $300. Added to that may be the 'quick loans' or 'refund anticipation loans' that almost always have very high interest rates, up to 180 percent," Shaffett said. "Sometimes these companies take a percentage of the refund as an added loan fee."

Shaffett also warned that there is no guarantee the actual refund will equal the loan amount. If this happens, the taxpayer would be responsible for repaying the high-interest loan.

Another option for taxpayers is Free File, a service offered via the IRS Web site, http://www.irs.gov. Free File is a partnership between the IRS and the tax software industry that allows taxpayers free access to online tax preparation and electronic filing services. Each participating software company has its own eligibility requirements.

Mark Green, the IRS spokesman for Mississippi, said Free File is a valuable tool for taxpayers in Mississippi. In past years, there were more limitations on who could use the Free File program, but Green said this year virtually anyone can e-file for free.

"Our goal is to help taxpayers meet the requirements of the federal government for filing income tax returns," Green said. "The Free File system is very user-friendly, and people can use it 24/7. Free File is an awesome alternative for anyone, young or old, rich or poor. It gives each taxpayer the opportunity not only to file their return and have it electronically processed, but if they select direct deposit, they can have their refund in seven to 10 business days."

Shaffett said this is a good reason for people who do not already have a bank account to develop a relationship with a bank. Refunds reach tax filers most quickly through direct deposit into bank accounts.

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Released: Feb. 10, 2005
Contact: Dr. Bobbie Shaffett, (662) 325-3080

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