Cherokee Nation targets earned income tax credit

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sent ME a check? Sure last year's rebate was nice, but I thought that was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

As hard as it may be to believe, the IRS is trying to help qualified low-income workers get money from the federal government. And that includes those in Indian country. As part of a new pilot program, the IRS is partnering with the Cherokee Nation to increase the number of eligible taxpayers who apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a rare bird indeed. It is a refundable tax credit. A normal tax credit is a reduction in the taxes you pay. But a refundable tax credit ? emphasis on refundable ? represents money that the IRS will pay you, whether or not you owe any taxes.

And while most tax benefits seem to go to people who don't need them ? corporations like Enron and wealthy individuals ? the EITC goes to low-income individuals and families. The amount of the EITC varies with income and family size. To qualify, your earned income for 2001 must be less than $28,281 if you have one child, $32,121 if you have more than one child and $10,710 if you have no children. (The respective maximum benefits exceed $3,000, over $2,000 and over $300.)

Last year, the IRS provided the Cherokee Nation with eight computers that it was replacing, to help with the Nation's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. In that program, which had operated for several years, volunteers from the Cherokee Nation Adult Education staff helped citizens complete more than 725 federal income tax returns. Some 300 of those qualified for the EITC. The average refund exceeded $1,200 and the program brought more than $350,000 into local communities.

This program springs from Principal Chief Chad Smith's efforts to revitalize and re-focus the Cherokee Nation. Under his leadership, the Nation established a Washington D.C. office from which Leigh Ann McGee made further contact with the IRS. This is part of the emphasis on exercising sovereignty through nation-to-nation relationships. The program is guided by the traditional Cherokee principal of "ga du gi," which means "working together," or more completely, "individuals and family coming together to help others and the community in time of need." This is one of the pillars of Chief Smith's Administration. On top of all that, this program brings money into the communities.

This year, to expand the effort, the IRS is providing the Cherokee Nation with 300 computers and some printers. These are computers the IRS is replacing with newer equipment, but they are still good computers with up-to-date software. As Todd Enlow, director of Cherokee Nation's Information Systems, explained to the Cherokee Phoenix: "Most of these are Pentium IIs, and a lot have CD read/write drives. They have all the gadgets." When the IRS updates their computer equipment again, within two years, they plan to replace all this equipment.

The computers will be placed in community centers, churches, Housing Authority offices and other locations throughout the Cherokee Nation's 14 county jurisdictional boundary, explains Stephanie Sharp, Manager of Administrative Operations for the Nation, and one of five members of the Tax Team, which oversees this operation. When not being used for tax preparation, the computers can be used by a student to write a report, or community members to search the Internet or read their email. At end of tax season, the Tax Team and IRS will re-evaluate the program and reassess the location of the equipment, training and other factors.

The program is not only for Cherokees. The Cherokee Nation will target some computers for the wider, non-Indian community. For example, one office will focus on Latino residents who work at the local nurseries.

According to Patsy Schramm, Chief of Government Partnerships for the Wage and Investment Division of the IRS in Atlanta, Ga., the Cherokee Nation was chosen because "we know the CN is second largest tribe in the U.S. and the IRS had a relationship with them for several years with our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program." For next year, says Ms. Schramm, "the IRS will work with Indian tribal governments to develop a rollout schedule for other tribal governments. The extent of the rollout will depend on our resources, applicability (avoiding wealthy areas or where unemployment is too high), the tribal government's willingness to partner and a commitment of resources necessary to make the project succeed."

For more information on the EITC, visit www.irs.gov. In addition, several states have their own EITC's.