The purpose of the TANF Outeach Project was to increase the impact of Earned Income Tax Credits by increasing the number of TANF and other Department of Human Services (OKDHS) clients using free tax preparation services.
The TANF Outreach Project was a 3-year partnership between fifteen member agencies of the Oklahoma Association of Community Action Agencies (OKACAA) operating Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) increased referrals of OKDHS and TANF/former TANF clients to VITA sites by 104% over three years. The initial project model addressed the difficulty of getting people to change where they sought tax assistance by including five possible points of contact for delivering the message to use free VITA sites:
- Revisions to a statewide letter already sent out by OKDHS
- A county letter to local clients
- Posters & flyers in county offices
- Verbal referrals by OKDHS staff
- A referral card with local site hours and locations used in combination with verbal referrals by the caseworker or county staff
During the course of the three-year project OKACAA worked with OKDHS to develop an effective referral program. OKACAA initiated the partnership with OKDHS, developed the program, and provided training on cultivating partnerships and asset development strategies to Community Action staff three to four times per year. OKDHS promoted participation to their county offices via email, mailed a letter to all OKDHS clients about Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) eligibility and free tax preparation sites, and printed cards with local site information for each county which they shipped to participating county offices for use in supporting client referrals. OKACAA developed, printed, distributed and tabulated a survey to determine if clients were referred by OKDHS.
OKACAA Community Action Agencies initiated contact with OKDHS County Directors, referring to the emails from OKDHS administrative staff. OKDHS County Directors were asked to utilize multiple points of contact to encourage the use of free VITA sites. Fifty-five county offices responded to the local agencies in the first year but five did not agree to any points of contact past the letter sent to all clients by central administrative staff. Twelve utilized only one additional point of contact. Local Community Action Agencies prepared tax returns supported, in part, by funds from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, and provided the referral survey to clients at the sites. The survey cards were returned to OKACAA for tabulation.
OKACAA provided data from the study to OKDHS administrative staff each year and sought their input for improving results and partnerships with county offices. The sessions resulted in changes to the survey, including the identification of data by county, and how clients were referred by OKDHS. OKACAA also provided data on referrals to staff at the local Community Action Agencies.
Local Community Action Agency staff provided survey response data to OKDHS County Supervisors and solicited their input for increasing referrals. These meetings resulted in increases to the number of points of contact on a county-by-county basis and cross-pollination of other available services. Community Action staff offered to provide information on the VITA sites and other agency programs at OKDHS county in-service and staff meetings. Community action staff reported decreased resistance to increasing points of contact when caseworkers were involved in meetings and expressed their enthusiasm for the project. Twenty-two counties were using five points of contact, 12 counties were using four, 17 counties were using three and three counties were using two points of contact by the third year of the project.
- Project agencies completed 49,780 returns over the three-year project, of which 18,747 returns received $27,560,751 in EITC at no cost to the client.
- The portion of tax clients receiving EITC averaged 37.7% of total clients over the three-year project period, a sustained recovery from an earlier downward trend from 43% to a low-point of 32% EITC clients in 2008. Targeting outreach efforts to OKDHS clients increased the percentage of returns submitted with EITC by six percentage points after a an 11 point drop occurring over four years of general outreach and capacity building.
- $9,956,000 dollars that would have otherwise gone to pay commercial tax preparers were made available for household expenses over the three-year period, using an area average preparation cost of $200/return. $3,749,400 of that amount went to very low income families receiving EITC.
- 1,991 clients responding to the survey by the third year of the study were referred to the free VITA tax site by OKDHS. This is more than double the number reported in either of the first two years of the project.
- Counties with OKDHS referrals of 25 clients or more were served by offices utilizing at least three points of contact. Below that threshold there was no correlation between the number of referrals and the number of different points of contact.
- Prior to the availability of actual data, most county and administrative OKDHS staff indicated they already made referrals and their current level of effort was sufficient. Providing county-specific data on actual referrals engaged OKDHS staff in additional efforts to increase utilization of free VITA sites.
- OKDHS staff indicated a commitment to continue providing the points of contact that encouraged clients to utilize the sites after the grant expired and OKACAA could no longer administrate the program.
- Over the three years, cross-pollination of programming resulted in 749 tax clients receiving homebuyer education or financial literacy services, 947 participating in asset building programs and 8,953 tax clients utilizing additional community action agency services.
- The project improved agency interaction between the action agencies and the county DHS offices by 40% as reported by a survey of Community Action Agency participants.
Tricia Auberle, Financial Education Programs Director