Campaign helps families climb out of poverty


Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 28, 2005 at 9:34 p.m.
Thousands of Floridians have received their W2 forms and are cringing at the thought of paying their taxes.
But for Florida's working poor, paying taxes is just one of several financial challenges they face. Many struggle to simply pay for the basics: food, housing and health care.
Poverty is a community problem and more Florida communities are addressing it by helping low-wage workers increase their income through prosperity campaigns.
Launched during tax time throughout the state (go to www.prosperitycampaign.org for a list by Florida county), this initiative helps people access benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the food stamp program and KidCare/Medicaid.
Prosperity campaigns in cities like Jacksonville, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando and Gainesville are among many in the state where working families can have their taxes done at no cost and access tax credits that would otherwise go unclaimed.
The EITC, for example, is a refundable tax credit up to $4,300 for low-income working families and individuals. This refund averages $1,908 per family, but still thousands of eligible families in Florida don't receive it.
The campaign in Palm Beach County offers financial services that help families set aside money for school, to buy a house and pay off debts.
In Miami, a consortium of banks has waived fees for new customers that meet certain requirements. Thousands of people who didn't have bank accounts will have an easier time establishing credit without being burdened by fees.
These prosperity campaigns not only put money in the pockets of the states' hard-working families, they help boost the local and state economies.
In Miami-Dade County, where the first prosperity campaign was launched in 2003 by the Human Services Coalition, the tax outreach effort generated an additional $62 million in revenue in the first year, with the "multiplier" effect of local spending making an impact of a quarter-billion dollars on the local economy.
The coalition, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Alliance for Human Services, North Dade Medical Foundation and The Children's Trust annually teams up with the county and the city of Miami to promote and market free tax-prep services and tax benefits.
This year, the United Way of Greater Miami has joined the effort to help the coalition create and distribute Prosperity Matters, an e-newsletter that provides human resource professionals tips on helping employees take advantage of economic benefits and free financial planning programs.
The economic benefits for individuals and for the state have been too great for our leaders to overlook.
Florida's Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher is helping to promote tax benefits like EITC through his Web site, Your Family Your Life. (www.yourfamilyyourlife.com).
State Rep. Ed Jennings, D-Gainesville, is drafting a bill proposing a statewide prosperity council and public school curriculum that will help students learn the importance of financial planning. Jennings' efforts have drawn the interest of banks such as Bank of America and SunTrust.
Florida's businesses see the potential, too. Chambers of commerce are encouraging employers to spread the word about free tax preparation and
existing economic benefits. They, too, recognize that a financially secure employee can be a benefit in the workplace.
Miami's prosperity campaign has in just two years created a trend that we are working hard to keep from going out of style.
The support from Democrats and Republicans, business leaders and the nonprofit community is unprecedented.
Daniella Levine is executive director of the Human Services Coalition, a nonprofit based in Miami.

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