NJ SHARES Op-Ed

New Jersey residents shouldn’t have to pick between paying for medicine or their energy bill

By Cheryl Stowell

As New Jersey begins the process of re-opening due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are starting to recognize the unavoidable economic challenges many of our residents will undoubtedly face. In addition to being a major public health threat, the coronavirus has brought an unprecedented economic crisis and recession, wreaking havoc on all parts of the state. Data released by the New Jersey Department of Labor shows that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 1.4 million jobless claims have been filed and the state’s unemployment rate has reached historic levels of 16.2%.

In these uncertain, unstable times, it is critically important that individuals and families experiencing financial difficulties have the appropriate resources they can turn to in their times of need.

It has long been recognized that low- and moderate-income communities struggle disproportionately in dealing with energy costs. According to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Residential Consumption Survey, one in three U.S. households face challenges when paying energy bills or adequately heating or cooling their homes. One in five forgo necessities like food and medicine to pay energy bills, forcing difficult tradeoffs that impact the household’s well-being.

The decisions made by New Jersey’s regulated utilities placing moratoriums on the suspension of utility services and collections of utility bill payments have been critically helpful for our residents. However, utility bill debt continues to mount for some, leaving them with difficult decisions about cooling their homes, purchasing medication, or even putting food on their tables.

With a mission of helping low- to moderate-income households address their energy insecurity issues during times of emergency or crisis, New Jersey SHARES (NJ SHARES) was established 22 years ago to provide statewide help and referral for essential services to those in temporary need of assistance. Our organization has helped keep the power on for more than 187,000 New Jersey households, granting more than $75 million in energy assistance.

Now, the cries for help are louder than ever.

With New Jersey’s tremendous budget deficit, our state’s leaders face enormous economic challenges. These challenges will only be amplified once moratoriums are lifted and utility customers are faced with staggering arrearages. Financial insecurities will also be exacerbated by mounting utility bill debt and the threat of disconnection.

We all must work together to ease the burden on New Jersey residents who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and find creative paths toward the resources required to aid in our collective recovery. NJ SHARES is committed to doing its part in these efforts.

As a nonprofit operating during difficult times, NJ SHARES is also facing our own challenges due to COVID-19 but remains firmly dedicated to assisting residents in need. We continue to identify critical funding sources and aggressively pursue them while utilizing existing funds to help those facing temporary hardships. Additionally, we look toward the on-going support of corporations and the generosity of individuals who help us Offer Hope and Deliver Help.

To quote Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” The staff at NJ SHARES will continue to do what we can to help our fellow New Jerseyans struggling with temporary hardships in paying their utility bills. Every little bit helps.

Cheryl Stowell is the president and CEO of NJ SHARES. The above opinion article appeared in the July 27, 2020 edition of nj.com.

Disclaimer: I am a founding member of NJ SHARES. Please donate what you can.

Today Is EITC Awareness Day

Today is EITC Awareness Day, a day to promote a program of benefit to working families and individuals.

EITC is a tax program although it acts very much like a safety-net program. It puts over $1 billion in the hands (or checking account) of New Jersey residents each year. However, it needs publicity every year, too. About 25% of state residents do not taken advantage of the program at tax time, even though the average EITC tax credit is more than $2,000.

This year the Earned Income Tax Credit page of the New Jersey Community Resources website has had a major revamping. Easy to find links are listed below. Please do what you can to spread the word about EITC to working families, constituents, and co-workers.

Find a Location for Free Tax Help
NJ Free Tax Assistance Locations
Free Tax Site Locations in South Jersey and Philadelphia Area
EITCoutreach.org’s Get It Back Campaign
IRS’ EITC Assistant
MyFreeTaxes
Free File
AARP Foundation Tax-Aide
IRS Publication 596
Notice 1015 – “Have You Told Your Employees About the Earned Income Credit (EIC)?”
IRS Notice 797 – “Possible Federal Tax Refund Due to the Earned Income Credit (EIC)”
IRS2Go
NJ EITC Page
NJ Statement to Employees
NJ EITC Informational Flyer

2019 Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Information

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable tax credit for families and individuals who have income from employment. It increases the amount refunded to a taxpayer or reduces the amount of tax owed. For 2018, 576,000 filers in New Jersey were able to be credited $1.4billion with an average tax refund of $2,360. However, almost 25% of eligible New Jersey taxpayers never file for EITC. You must file a tax return to claim your EITC.

Twenty-nine states, including New Jersey, maintain their own EITC program. New Jersey taxpayers may receive a credit equal to 39% of their federal credit. It is based on their employment earnings, filing status, number of children and adjusted gross income (AGI).

Income Limits and Maximum EITC Credits

Number of Qualifying Children Single/Head of Household or Widow(er), Income Must be Less Than Married Filing Jointly, Income Must be Less Than Maximum Federal Credit Maximum NJ State Credit
No Child $15,570 $21,370 $529 $206
One Child $41,094 $46,884 $3,526 $1,375
Two Children $46,703 $52,493 $5,828 $2,273
Three or More Children $50,162 $55,952 $6,557 $2,557

The EITC Assistant is an online tool to estimate if an individual or family may qualify by answering a number of questions. The IRS also publishes a one page fact sheet, IRS Notice 797 and a more detailed booklet, IRS Publication 596.

Free assistance to prepare and file your federal income tax return is available from a number of organizations and programs. The United Way and H&R Block partner to offer MyFreeTaxes. All income levels are eligible to file both federal and state returns for free using MyFreeTaxes.com. Also available is Free File another free, easy to use online software program. Taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is $69,000 and below are eligible. The AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program offers free tax preparation to low and moderate-income taxpayers, especially age 50 and older.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax help to people who generally make $56,000 or less, persons with disabilities and limited English speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals. In addition to VITA, the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program offers free tax help for all taxpayers, particularly those who are 60 years of age and older. Most VITA and TCE sites are open February to April.

The IRS provides a Find a Location for Free Tax Help page. The NJ 2-1-1 Partnership maintains a NJ Free Tax Assistance Locations page. South Jersey residents in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May and Cumberland Counties, as well as residents in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, can get tax preparation help from the non-profit Campaign for Working Families.

Non-profits, advocacy groups and government agencies can participate in outreach efforts by promoting the NJEITC page and their NJEITC Informational Flyer. Groups interested in conducting an outreach campaign or promoting EITC on social media should subscribe to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Get It Back Campaign.

Employers are encouraged to distribute copies of “Have You Told Your Employees About the Earned Income Credit (EIC)?”, available as Notice 1015 by the IRS. The New Jersey Division of Taxation publishes a Statement to Employees.

Smartphone users can download IRS2Go, the official IRS mobile app. You can use it to check your tax refund status or find free tax prepartion services, or even to send a payment to Uncle Sam.

EITC, Vita Sites And Free File

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable tax credit for families and individuals who have income from employment. It increases the amount refunded to a taxpayer or reduces the amount of tax owed. You must file a tax return to claim your EITC.

Twenty-eight states, including New Jersey, maintain their own state EITC program. New Jersey taxpayers may receive a credit equal to 37% of their federal credit. It is based on their employment earnings, filing status, number of children and adjusted gross income (AGI).

Income Limits and Maximum EITC Credits

Number of Qualifying Children Single/Head of Household or Widow(er), Income Must be Less Than Married Filing Jointly, Income Must be Less Than Maximum Federal Credit Maximum NJ State Credit
No Child $15,270 $20,950 $519 $192
One Child $40,320 $46,010 $3,461 $1,281
Two Children $45,802 $51,492 $5,716 $2,115
Three or More Children $49,194 $54,884 $6,431 $2,380

Free assistance to prepare and file your federal and state income tax returns are available from a number of organizations and programs, including a United Way listing of New Jersey VITA Sites. You can also access the IRS VITA Site Locator Tool. Free, easy to use online software is available to taxpayers with an Adjusted Gross Income of $66,000 or less through the Free File program.

The EITC Assistant is an online tool to help determine if a family may qualify for EITC by answering a number of questions. The IRS also publishes a one page fact sheet, IRS Notice 797 and a forty page booklet on EITC, IRS Publication 596.

Employers, have you told your employees about the Earned Income Tax Credit? If not, distribute copies of IRS Notice 1015. The New Jersey Division of Taxation also publishes a Statement to Employees with helpful links and phone numbers.

Nonprofits, advocacy groups and government agencies can participate in outreach efforts by distributing the Division of Family Development’s NJ 2018 EITC Flyer which is included on their EITC page. Groups interested in conducting an outreach campaign or promoting EITC on social media should subscribe to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Get It Back Campaign.

Another option is to download IRS2Go, the official IRS mobile app. You can use it to check the status of your tax refund or find free tax prepartion services, etc.

Philadelphia Area and South Jersey residents can find free tax site locations by visiting the
Campaign for Working Families website.