It’s no secret that east Orange County, as well as all of Central Florida, is facing a heartbreaking and growing crisis of poverty and homelessness among local children and families.
Many of us have been deeply moved by televised reports on CBS 60 Minutes, CNN and other national news outlets that have highlighted families crowded into cars and sleeping in parking lots; fathers standing guard all night to protect their loved ones; and children getting washed and ready for school in public restrooms. It’s a crisis that United Way and our agency partners have been witnessing – and responding to – for quite some time. It’s also something we’ve been tracking through 2-1-1, United Way’s free 24-hour information, referral and crisis helpline.
Last year alone, more than 163,590 Orange, Osceola and Seminole county residents sought urgent assistance through 2-1-1 ‒ an alarming 101-percent increase since 2007. Nearly two-thirds were first-time callers who never needed help before and more than half required assistance with utilities and housing – basic human needs.
Lifting children out of poverty
One of the many things United Way is doing to help stem this tragic tide is promoting awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit ‒ or EITC ‒ which is credited with lifting more children out of poverty than any other federal program.
By offering tax credits of up $5,717, EITC can make a life-changing difference for people who are struggling to pay for rent, electricity, day care, medical treatment or any ordinary expense. Best of all, claiming EITC is easy to do at more than 30 free local tax preparation sites, which help people receive 100 percent of their refund usually within 10 days or less.
Half a billion dollar economic boost
EITC also provides a significant boost to the local economy as more than half a billion dollars in refunds were distributed in the tri-county region last year alone. And with the majority of dollars spent on such things as groceries, car repairs, home improvements, medical care and other goods and services, local merchants and retailers also prosper.
Despite these many benefits, the Internal Revenue Service estimates that one in four eligible recipients fail to claim EITC, mainly due to lack of awareness. That’s why United Way is calling on residents, businesses and others to help us promote it.
While EITC is not a silver bullet, it is one of the best tools our community has for helping families survive – and recover – from the ongoing economic crisis. And with good paying, full-time jobs still hard to find, it’s likely that even more residents will qualify for this tremendous benefit in the difficult year ahead.
So if you know someone who may qualify for EITC or needs help with any basic need, please urge them to simply dial 2-1-1. Together, by LIVING UNITED, we can help our neighbors and communities recover from this crisis.
Robert H. (Bob) Brown is President/CEO of Heart of Florida United Way