Why should Georgia have a state EITC?

January 29th, 2016 by

In honor of #EITCAwarenessDay, learn how a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would positively impact our state and community.

 

How a state EITC would benefit families –

A state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would provide a bottom-up tax cut that would benefit more than a million Georgia families and put an estimated $270 million back into the pockets of working Georgians.County EITC Map Branded

More specifically it would benefit:

  • An estimated 770,000 working mothers and 410,000 working
  • An estimated 80,000 military veterans and their
  • An estimated 2 million children.
  • Over a million Georgia households representing 6 million Georgians.

Georgia should create a state Earned Income Tax Credit to help Georgians with jobs afford the basics and work their way into the middle class.

  • The tax credit lets low- and moderate-income working families keep more of what they earn to help meet basic needs and pay for things that allow them to keep working, such as child care and transportation.
  • This helps families as they get a toehold in the workforce or deal with temporary setbacks like having their hours or pay reduced or a family breadwinner laid off.
  • For families with very low wages, the credit increases with each dollar earned, which encourages them to work more hours. That additional experience in the workforce can lead to higher pay and better opportunities. The tax credit phases out after recipients reach a modest income level.
  • This tax credit offers working families a hand up by encouraging and supporting work and reducing use of public assistance. It’s a modest investment that can make a big difference in the lives of working families.
  • If someone doesn’t work and pay taxes, they can’t receive this help. It only goes to people who earn income through low-wage work, most of them raising children.

How a state EITC would benefit small businesses, local economies and Georgia’s future workforce.

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit boosts local economies across the state by helping low-wage workers keep more of their income, which they spend at local businesses to buy groceries, pay for car repairs, or afford child care.
  • And businesses like this tax credit because workers who can pay for basic necessities are more dependable employees because they can better afford reliable transportation to get to work and child care for their kids.
  • The EITC is a proven tool to strengthen tomorrow’s workforce because young people receive an outsized benefit. Research finds that children and young adults in families receiving the EITC do better in school, graduate high school and attend college and succeed in the workforce.

To view full report: the case for a state Earned Income Tax Credit

Download Georgia Budget & Policy Institute’s State EITC Fact Sheet

ABOUT NATIONAL EITC AWARENESS DAY


EITC Awareness Day is a national grassroots effort to draw attention to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the enormous positive benefit it has on working families across the country.

 

Tax Time = Time to Save

January 20th, 2016 by

Did you know that retirement is the only thing you can’t borrow money to do? Tax time provides a great opportunity for people
retirementto start saving for the future, which will be here before you know it. Even setting aside a small portion of your refund is a great start. For those who haven’t found an easy way to save, myRA (my Retirement Account) is a great place to start. This tax season, tax filers can get on the path to more secure retirements and, if eligible, take advantage of the Saver’s Tax Credit with myRA.

What is myRA?

myRA is a new starter retirement savings account developed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. It may be a good savings option for many tax filers, especially for those who don’t have access to retirement savings plans at work — like small business employees, part-time and temporary workers, and the self-employed. myRA is a Roth IRA1 that was designed to remove common barriers to saving and make it easy to get started. Saving with myRA is simple, safe, and affordable:

  • No cost to open, no minimums, and no fees
  • No complicated investment options
  • No risk of losing money
  • Backed by the U.S. Treasury
  • Savers choose the amount to contribute1
  • Money deposited is available when it’s needed2

Tax filers can make the most of their federal tax refunds with just three simple steps:

  1. Open a myRA account before filing a tax return by visiting myRA.gov or calling 855-406-6972.
  2. Provide the appropriate myRA account and routing numbers (111925074) to your tax preparer and indicate the amount of the federal tax refund that should be directed to the myRA account. If depositing a refund into multiple accounts, Form 8888 will need to be completed.
  3. Ask your preparer if you are also eligible for the Saver’s Tax Credit. Individuals may be eligible if they contribute to certain types of retirement savings accounts, like myRA.

Need help getting your taxes prepared? Contact the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at Neighborhood Improvement Association to find a free tax preparation site near you: 912.447.5577 or www.niacdc.org


1Annual and lifetime contribution limits and annual earned income limits apply, as do conditions for tax-free withdrawal of interest. To learn about key features of a Roth IRA and for other requirements and details, visit myRA.gov/roth-ira.

2Interest earned may be withdrawn without tax and penalty five years after your first contribution if you are over age 59 ½, or if you meet certain other conditions, such as using the funds for the purchase of your first home.

Farewell to Step Up Board Members

December 16th, 2015 by

step up mugStep Up’s board meeting on December 15th marked the end of terms for eleven board members. We took a moment to honor their contributions to our organization by gifting a Step Up travel mug filled with chocolate (the Step Up staff’s favorite way to
show appreciation.)

Thank you to the following individuals for giving of their time and energy to support the mission of Step Up Savannah.

Earline Davis, Director of Housing Authority of Savannah

Bishop Willie Ferrell, Pastor of Royal Church of Christ

Dr. Alethea Frazier Raynor, Principal Associate of Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University

Cathy Hill, Vice President of Georgia Power – Coastal Region

Mayor Edna Jackson

Dr. Otis Johnson, Former Mayor

Rev. James Nelson, Holy Spirit Lutheran Church

Diane Pinckney, Savannah Metro Police Department & NLA Graduate

Trip Tollison, President & CEO of Savannah Economic Development Authority

John Wills, President of Consumer Credit Counseling Service

Farewell Board Members

Step Up engages all sectors of the community to improve the economic mobility and financial stability of families in Savannah, Chatham County. Step Up is an independent 501(c)3 with a 39-member board of directors that counts 95 organizations as its partners. This network of business and government leaders, social service providers, neighborhood leaders and local volunteers form a nationally recognized partnership that seeks to engage the entire community in our mission.

Celebrating a Step Up Partner, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Savannah Area, Inc.

November 24th, 2015 by

CCCSSINCE 1965, local non-profit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Savannah Area, Inc. (CCCS) has delivered money management solutions to individuals and families. Their nationally certified counselors provide expert advice to help increase the financial knowledge of clients while helping them solve financial problems and achieve their goals.

CCCS consists of seven staff members committed to improving the financial health of members of the Savannah community. John Wills (right), executive director of CCCS, has served on Step Up’s Board of Directors and as the board chair in 2014. Richard Reeve (left) is the director of Financial Education for CCCS and works alongside Step Up in several different capacities.

How They Make a Difference

CCCS changes people’s lives by teaching them how to manage their debt, build their credit, prepare to buy a home, or avoid foreclosure through financial counseling and education. Find out more about CCCS  – www.cccssavannah.org

Workplace and Community Financial Education

Step Up Savannah and CCCS work together to provide a comprehensive menu of financial education for employees at worksites_RBC7498throughout Chatham County. They also offer workshops at public libraries and community-based workforce development
programs. Classes focus on applied learning, giving participants the opportunity to immediately use new knowledge and change behavior. For example, in a class about credit reports, participants pull their credit report, learn how to read and interpret it, and dispute any errors. In addition, workplace-based financial counseling means individuals can address critical financial concerns such as debt repayment, identity theft, foreclosure, or home purchase.

Using surveys and individual meetings with HR/program staff to identify the biggest needs and topics of interest to employees, Step Up and CCCS have offered popular classes such as “Improving Your Credit Score,” “Spending Plans,” and “Grow Your Savings.” They rely on an independently developed unbiased curricula called Smart Cents, the FDIC’s Money Smart program and Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Foundation’s modules for classroom education.

Step Up and CCCS were recognized for their employer-based work by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) in its Platforms for Prosperity national contest in 2014.

Life Line Loan

_RBC7552In the spring of 2015, Georgia Heritage Federal Credit Union (GHFCU) partnered with Step Up and CCCS on the new Life Line
Loan, an employer-based loan program. Life Line is an affordable small-dollar loan ($300-$1500) available through employers that sign up with Georgia Heritage. The program is coupled with on-site financial education to ensure employees develop a better understanding of how to manage credit and debt. Loan payments are made through payroll deduction, and GHFCU reports loan payments to the credit bureaus to establish a positive credit history. Once the loan is paid in full, the loan payment amount continues to be withdrawn from payroll and deposited into the employee’s savings account until they opt out, allowing employees to build an emergency savings fund.

Five employers have signed up for the program– Chatham County, Chatham Area Transit, Goose Feathers Café, Hospice Savannah and Senior Citizens, Inc.– but it’s open to any employer.

Chatham Apprentice Program (CAP) Financial Education

Richard holds three 90 minute presentations that cover budgeting, creating financial goals, maximizing income, priortizing expenses, and understanding credit for each CAP class. In addition, he provides individual on-site credit review.

“Through partnerships and collaborative efforts,” Richard says about CCCS’ relationship with Step Up, “we can have a deeper and more meaningful impact in our community. Our relationship has allowed us to market and network our agency better, connected us with other national agencies and funders, and gotten us linked with policy work.”


Do you want to make a difference in your community? We can help you. Fill out our Commit to Action form here and together we will create opportunity in Savannah.

Images courtesy of Blake Crosby Photography.

From Corporate America to AmeriCorps VISTA

November 6th, 2015 by

By Janice Johannsen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor 23 years, I was a slave to my job. I say this not to equate my status to African Americans who were enslaved in this country but because, at my worst moments, that is how I felt.

Before moving to Savannah, I worked for a major entertainment company in Hollywood, California, a Fortune 500 company that was owned by an even bigger multimedia corporation. I didn’t care much for my job but I went to work every day because the money was too good to pass up and the benefits were unbeatable. Those on the outside looking in thought it was exciting. I’d see George Clooney or Ashton Kutcher on my way to the commissary, work out next to George Lopez at the company gym and have access to free merchandise that beat the local Toys R’ Us.  At first, it was exciting; after all, a bright, shiny object is attractive but over time, like most everything else, it started losing its luster. When it was all said and done, I was nothing more than a cog in a wheel whose purpose was to protect the company’s assets so that it could continue to be a money-making machine.

Of course I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t acknowledge that I enjoyed the money. To live life comfortably is something most of us desire. But at what price?

Over 10 years ago, I got deeply involved with a small nonprofit organization that sends poor kids in the Philippines to school. It10941040_869838259726702_6142924340733328274_n was through this work that I realized I had the passion to do nonprofit work and that I could do it well. When we moved to Savannah because of my husband’s job, I knew I couldn’t go back to working in corporate America. After searching long and hard, I grabbed the opportunity to work for Step Up as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

I have to admit that initially I was afraid to take on the challenge. After all, it is easier to ignore poverty than to address it. I’ve always lead a fairly comfortable life and frankly, I was afraid that the work would be depressing. I am glad to say I was wrong.

11741022_954779277899266_1215838927150003950_o (1)My year as an AmeriCorps VISTA has been one of the best things I have done. I have met wonderful and inspiring people that I never would have met had I stayed in my own little world. I have spent time in poor neighborhoods and as a result I have a better understanding of people’s lives. Not having children of my own, I have learned that being with kids gives me so much joy. Perhaps most importantly, I have a renewed sense of hope that, when faced with adversity, a community can work together to make change. I found that when you are working to make a difference, the rewards are numerous and life-changing. I once read that the best kind of work is one that affects people. Whoever wrote that was right.

As I end my service as a VISTA, I leave with more experience, skills, and a clear idea about what I want to do next. Working for a cause such as reducing poverty shifts your focus in life. I may no longer get that generous paycheck but, for the past year, I have been coming home with a smile on my face instead.

Learn more about AmeriCorps VISTA 

Step Up program offers employer-based low-interest loan program

July 7th, 2015 by

Article written by Jan Skutch for  Savannah Morning News

When those out-of-the-blue bills hit, home workers are frequently left with few options other than high-interest rate lenders.

Under a new program recently rolled out here, Step Up Savannah Inc. is joining forces with Georgia Heritage Federal Credit Union and Consumer Credit Counseling Services and a list of employers to offer employees an easy-to-access “small-dollar loan program.”

The plan is employer-based and offers employees between $300 and $1,500 at a reasonable rate, repaid through a paycheck deduction. And a bad or no credit score is not a bar to getting the loan.

“It’s open to all employees,” said Robyn Wainner, Step Up’s director of Asset Building & Financial Empowerment. “We understand that many folks need money if the car breaks down or kids need money for summer camp,” Wainner said. “We really are trying to provide an alternative to people who don’t have alternatives.”

The program is accessible through the employer’s human resources departments and based on simple criteria — the employee works there at least six months and is in good standing, she said. The loan is processed through the credit union individually with the employee getting money same day or 24-48 hours, Wainner said.

“They pay the loan back through direct payroll deductions” over a six- to 12-month period, and the consistent payments work to improve the employee’s credit as he or she goes. An added benefit of the program is that once the loan is repaid, the deductions that had been coming out of the employee’s paycheck can then go directly into a savings account until the employee opts out.

And the program allows the Consumer Credit Counseling Services to assist the employee with financial education efforts to make improvements down the road. Robby Glore, vice president for operations at Georgia Heritage Federal Credit Union, said the program “fits like a glove for us,” adding the credit union’s motto is “People helping people.”

“We are a local credit union serv ing Bryan, Effingham and Chatham counties,” he said. “The only bond we have is with the employers.”

He said the credit union has money to lend, pointing out that the institution’s money comes from its members. Georgia Heritage offers 16.9 percent annual percentage rate for payroll deductions, 18 percent for cash repayments, as opposed to 187.5 percent annual rate for car-title loans, Glore said.

“Based on a $1,000 loan, I can save them $1,100 a year over the alternative finance companies,” he said. “This is a whole lot cheaper interest rate.” “These are people who really need that money,” Glore said.

In addition to the interest savings, the program offers participants a way “to get back on a sound financial footing,” he added. Officials said the program is available to all employers. The largest partner on board is the Chatham Area Transit Authority and its 236 employees, CAT marketing manager Shalonda Rountree said the program offers them an opportunity to “encourage participation by employees whose credit history would not allow for approval from traditional loan programs, and who may resort to obtaining extremely high interest and fees by resorting to alternative or car-title loans.”

“Since the introduction of the program at the end of May, the Life Line Loan Program has been a huge success,” Roundtree said, adding that 27 employees have already applied to participate. One of the employers early on in the program was Hospice Savannah and its 205 employees.

Ron Williams, Hospice human resources director, said his nonprofit attended a seminar in March at the Savannah Morning News and saw the program as having potential “for it to be a good benefit for our employees.” Hospice officials were seeing employees facing unexpected “financial binds” to look to their retirement accounts to make up shortfalls, he said.

“We wanted them to have another option so they would not have to go to their retirement for extra money,” Williams said. “Every employee is eligible for the loan program. The credit union will pull credit reports but your credit score does not prohibit you from getting a loan.

Since we rolled it out two weeks ago “at least five or six of our employees have already applied for loans and several more have asked about the program,” Williams said.

“It seems to be” working for the employees, he said.

Do they seem to like it? he is asked.

“Yes, they do.”

Poverty: There’s no silver bullet

June 24th, 2015 by
Op-Ed by Suzanne Donovan in Savannah Morning News on June 20

 

How refreshing – and valuable – to see a lively dialogue in the editorial pages about poverty, our city’s defining issue.

That we tolerate a 26 percent poverty rate in Savannah – and impossibly higher in several census tracts, up to 60 percent – is not just unconscionable but counter to our own economic and social interests.

Where I take some exception to the smart ideas that have been published recently is the “either/or” positions. Truth is, neither the lack of education nor our low wages – both issues that plague the Southeast – by themselves cause poverty.

We still struggle with racial and income segregation in housing, for instance, which may be the single greatest contributor to specific neighborhoods having higher concentrations of poverty. And unbelievable as it sounds, there are still people who won’t support public transit – a proven game-changer in terms of access to higher-paying work as well as other kinds of economic opportunity – because they believe buses transport “criminals” (code for people who don’t look like me).

Make no mistake, an under educated and uncompensated population are core issues. But they are not unique to Savannah.

Political and business leaders throughout the U.S. are having the same conversation about skilled workforce and wages. But even if we were able to somehow immediately alter the uneven and inequitable distribution of resources among our public schools today and ensure that every child was able to get a high-quality pre-K start, we still wouldn’t see a radical decrease in our poverty rate.

In the same way, even if a majority of new jobs created paid a family-sustaining wage, that step alone wouldn’t change the high concentration of families living in poverty in too many of our neighborhoods.

As painful as it is to hear, both issues and more have to be addressed. And they have to be dealt with at the same time. We can’t just select one piece of the problem to tackle. We can, and should, prioritize – and intelligently chose our target audiences who can affect change – but we can’t just act on one of these and hope to for real transformation.

We can demand more discriminating decisions about what industries to attract. We can seek out companies and encourage local startups that share a vision of community that promotes a strong local economy and that promise a living wage for families.

We can ask area businesses to take a stand and voluntarily pay family-sustaining wages and benefits, and as consumers we can support these businesses and services. (More employers could take a page from restaurants like Chipotles, now offering paid sick and vacation leave and tuition reimbursement for all their employees.)

We can demand that Chatham County’s schools that are serving children from high-poverty neighborhoods devote greater resources to these schools because we know these children, our children, need and deserve more. It’s not only the equitable thing to do, such investment would vastly improve our economy over the long haul.

Our only hope in cutting the high poverty rate is in a multi-pronged approach where every sector of our community commits to making a difference however they can, from individual choices to systemic changes.

I deeply appreciate the public debate about poverty. I agree, too, that while crime (particularly violent crime) is a legitimate public concern, poverty is at its core. Deep, generational poverty far overshadows crime as a relentless threat to individual potential.

We didn’t get here overnight. We built systems and made decisions over time that created and ultimately, albeit quietly, tolerated such high concentrations of poverty. Real change doesn’t happen based on either-or propositions.

We need to be all in.

Suzanne Donovan is executive director of Step Up Savannah. Contact her at sdonovan@stepupsavannah.org or 912-232-6747.

“Ban the Box” Legislation in Georgia Leads the Way

February 25th, 2015 by

In January of 2014, Octavian left the Correctional Institute in Americus, having just served a 10-month sentence for aggravated assault. At 27 years old, his life lay ahead of him, yet he had no idea what to do with it.

“After my release I could not find a job anywhere and thought that I had ruined my chance of having a successful future or being able to take care of myself,” Octavian said, who moved back to his hometown of Savannah after his release.

Each month nearly 1,300 men and women just like Octavian return to their communities across Georgia to face the daunting task of reconstructing their lives.  One of the first orders of business is to find a job. However many returning citizens are unable to get past the application stage of the job search because of their criminal background. Nearly all applications for all levels of work have a box that requires an applicant to note any criminal history. When an applicant checks that box, it acts as a “scarlet letter,” affecting the employer’s perception of the applicant. The employer’s view of the applicant is tainted before ever examining their qualifications.

So why is this a problem? Georgia is one of the hardest states to get a job when the box is checked. Even individuals re-entering with high-level hard skills are considered unemployable, and all too often, the conviction is irrelevant to the demands of the job. Those returning citizens lucky enough to find a job typically have to settle for the lowest-wage positions regardless of their skills, which leaves them stuck in a cycle of poverty. Evidence has shown that stable employment is the best way to prevent recidivism. With nearly 3.8 million, or one in three Georgians, with some kind of criminal background the state needs to step up and assist returning citizens in getting their fair shot.

Governor Nathan Deal agrees. Through executive order  on February 23, 2015, Georgia joined thirteen states to enact the fair hiring policy commonly called “Ban the Box.” And Georgia is the first Southern state to sign. The new policy means returning citizens will be considered first on merit and qualifications on state employment applications. Rather than disclose their criminal history on the application, the candidate is able disclose their criminal history in a face-to-face interview. This should allow candidates to provide a better understanding of their history and how it impacts their ability to perform the work. In addition, only a relevant conviction may be used as the basis for disqualification.

Step Up Savannah applauds this move because a significant percentage of our Chatham Apprentice Program (CAP) graduates have some form of criminal background. We help them develop the job-readiness skills necessary for employment. We partner with Georgia Legal Services to assist our participants learn how to better articulate their criminal history  during interviews.

Still, the pool of employers who will hire individuals with a criminal background remains limited.  The Governor’s order to “Ban the Box” on state applications should go a long way to reduce a barrier many of our graduates face and potentially open some doors to interview for higher-wage positions.

Octavian found employment after completing CAP and continued to take classes at Savannah Tech. His experience—and many others like him—show it’s possible to rebuild after incarceration.  Now because of “Ban the Box,” thousands more Georgians with criminal backgrounds have more hope of finding employment; at least they’ll get a foot in the door.

If your business is interested in partnering with CAP to help our graduates find employment, email kblair@stepupsavannah.org