Philadelphia's Campaign for Working Families

On April 25, 2003, with the tax filing season behind them, the staff of the Philadelphia Campaign for Working Families threw a celebratory party for nearly 200 volunteers and sponsors that had been a part of its first-year success. 

“More than ten million dollars went to hard working families – we did all that and more,” exclaimed Jean Hunt, the executive director. Philadelphia was one of 23 cities nationwide to sponsor a campaign to alert families to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the availability of free tax preparation services. A newcomer to the EITC effort, Philadelphia had set ambitious goals, and exceeded them. 

Yet, that very morning the New York Times reported that IRS was planning to tighten the rules for some households filing for the EITC. The higher burden of proof—certified records and sworn affidavits to demonstrate the custody or dependence of children, for example—was immediately criticized as a double standard unfair to low income working households. The proposed rules issued afterward in June were as onerous as advocates feared, and were unwelcome cold water in Philadelphia. 

The IRS proposed that certain types of non-traditional households (grandparents and single fathers with custody, for example), pre-qualify for the EITC through submission of detailed documents before they actually filed in the spring. Many critics point to the difficulty and confusion many legitimate EITC claimants may have in meeting the standards of proof, or overcoming their fears of charges of criminal perjury should they fail. Others observe that the broader danger is that the controversy over the EITC pre-certification will lead some who are eligible to believe that they are not, reducing legitimate claims. 

Philadelphia’s Campaign for Working Families had seen many households that would be affected by the new rules. In an urban area with many children living in non-traditional households, the burden of producing proof of custody as a pre-condition for claiming a tax benefit seemed punitive. Potential release of the information to other state and federal non-tax agencies was also problematic. “It is difficult to explain this notification as anything other than a coercive and intimidating message sent to these low income working Americans,” the Campaign noted in its response to the proposed rules. 

Whatever the outcome of the debate over the IRS rules, however, Philadelphia’s Campaign for Working Families is planning its second year with the same dedication and strategic vision that catapulted it to among the first-tier EITC campaigns in the nation in its first year of operation. How the Campaign achieved its notable successes holds important lessons for other community campaigns to support low and moderate income citizens.

Mr. James Moore

Mr. James Moore

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