The ongoing partial government shutdown has dragged on for more than 24 days, and it doesn’t look like the Trump administration is interested in ending it any time soon. One of the agencies affected is the IRS, and the longer the shutdown continues, the likelier it is that tax season becomes ensnared in a significant way. The Trump administration was spooked enough by the prospect of people not receiving their 2018 tax refunds that it ordered furloughed IRS employees back to work, despite the fact that it may be illegal.
Delayed refunds are indeed a big concern, especially for those low-income Americans who depend on their yearly tax refund to make ends meet, and who tend to file their returns first. But in many ways, delayed refunds are a status quo issue for poorer households, along with a host of other problems brought about by bad IRS policy and shortchanged IRS budgets. For low-income Americans, the IRS doesn’t work even when the government is fully open for business.
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For starters, as the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service – which is the public’s representative at the agency – wrote in its latest report to Congress, the IRS is not doing enough for the tens of millions of people who don’t have reliable internet access. If those people want to call the IRS to get help with their taxes, instead of using the website, odds are they won’t get to speak to anyone. The Taxpayer Advocate Service estimated that, in fiscal year 2018, 60 percent of attempts to receive live assistance from the agency over the phone would fail.
To its credit, the IRS does offer free in-person tax prep to low-income people via the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program and the Taxpayer Counseling for the Elderly program – VITA and TCE, respectively. 90 percent of those eligible for the former program make less than $54,000 per year. However, likely due to problems regarding publicity, locations, and inability to take time off to meet with a VITA volunteer, very few eligible households can take advantage of these services. Of the 108 million individual tax filers in 2017 who were eligible for the programs, just 3.5 million successfully had their taxes submitted.
Most people, instead, turn to paid tax prep, paying a fee to do something that should be free and easy. According to the Tax Policy Center, more than half of households earning less than $30,000 annually use paid tax prep, which costs an average of $176 for a basic federal and state return.
In return for that money, they receive more potential problems: Tax preparers are more likely to make a mistake than households who do their taxes themselves, and are especially bad, per a 2014 Government Accountability Office study, at correctly calculating the Earned Income Tax Credit, which specifically goes to lower-income households. Of course, those households are the least able to absorb an IRS penalty for improper filing.
The big tax prep companies, in partnership with the IRS, do offer up free filing to people who qualify, usually on the basis of low incomes, but those programs are hard to navigate and full of tricks that push people into paid filing systems. Many states also don’t allow free filing programs at all for their own state-level income taxes. Only 3 percent of people eligible for free private filing programs actually use them, and most don’t come back to repeat the experience the following year.
While the IRS has not been making it easier for low-income people to pay their taxes, there is one way that it has been giving them special attention: fraud investigations. Last year, more than one-third of IRS audits were of taxpayers eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which for a single filer with no children can only be claimed if you make less than $15,000. Those receiving the EITC are audited at twice the rate of wealthy Americans who make between $200,000-$500,000.
Having a return flagged for audit can mean all sorts of hassles, even if it turns out nothing was done wrong, which is the most likely outcome. Between January and October last year, non-identity theft refund fraud at the IRS has a false positive rate of 81 percent, meaning more than 8 in 10 refunds flagged by auditors showed no evidence of fraud after they were investigated. And good luck to anyone who calls the IRS, actually reaches a live person, and wants to know why their return has been labeled as problematic: IRS customer service reps don’t have access to the non-identity fraud case management system.
Such flagging can mean a long wait for a refund even if the fraud charge was unfounded. More than one-third of the people who were flagged improperly in 2017 had to wait 11 weeks or more to receive their money.
These problems are not the fault of the IRS staff. The issue is that conservatives have intentionally starved it of funds. The 2018 IRS budget was $2.5 billion below what was spent on the agency in 2010, adjusted for inflation – a decline of 18 percent. Over and over, the IRS has been asked to do more with less; its budget has been lower than the previous year every year since 2010, save for one. Tax prep companies also have a stake in the status quo – as more difficult taxes mean more fees – and they lobby accordingly. H&R Block and Intuit spent about $3 million and $2 million respectively last year on a variety of bills, some of which would have made paying taxes easier, such as the Tax Filing Simplification Act of 2017.
It’s undoubtedly a bad thing that the IRS – and the rest of the government – is partially shut down. But even at the best of times, the agency doesn’t work for low-income Americans. Simply opening the doors again won’t change that.