Most people want to run and hide when the IRS comes calling. But when IRS employee David Williams contacts taxpayers, he’s just trying to lend them a hand.
He is in charge of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the government program designed to give huge tax breaks to low-income workers. About 22 to 23 million people got over $43 billion this most recent year, according to Williams, making it one of the largest anti-poverty programs in the world.
But because many of the people it benefits are inexperienced or intimidated when filing their taxes, much of the credit goes unclaimed every year.
Williams’ office is working to change that by conducting outreach programs in economically poor neighborhoods. In recognition of his efforts, the Partnership For Public Service, a non-profit group that advocates for federal employees, recently named Williams a finalist for its annual Service To America Medal.
In an interview with the Arlington Connection, Williams talked about the IRS’s strategies to overcome its reputation as a heartless tax collector and inform people of the money they could be saving.
Arlington Connection: What is the Earned Income Tax Credit and how does it work?
David Williams: It is a tax break for people who work but don’t make a lot of money. The maximum you can make [to qualify] is mid-thirties. In order to get the maximum credit your income [has to be] $10,000-$15,000 a year. The tax credit could be as much as $4,500. It can be a big deal. The value of the credit goes up as [your] income goes up and then it levels off.
AC: Before you launched your outreach efforts, many low-income workers were not using the Earned Income Tax Credit. Why is this? What did you do to change this?
DW: We think there were a lot of reasons. We think that as much as 25 percent of the eligible population doesn’t get [the] credit. There are lots of reasons. It may be cultural; it may be the language barrier. In many cases they may not think they’re eligible because they have no tax return.
AC: Many people are scared of or are intimidated by the IRS. Did this make your outreach efforts difficult? What did you do to combat this?
DW: There are so many people in so many different kinds of circumstances. It depends on what’s going on in a particular community. There may be a lot of folks that don’t speak English. And the IRS isn’t normally set up to go into the community and do outreach. But for this program, we created community-based partnerships with 350 organizations. Instead of the IRS trying to go into the community we can provide information to groups that know the community. We set up about 12,000 sites across the country where people who are eligible for [the tax credit] can come in and file their taxes electronically for free. Most people raise an eyebrow when you hear the IRS. That’s the point of the third party.
AC: How did you come to work at the IRS? Was it something you had wanted to do for a long time?
DW: Never. I came to Washington and worked in the U.S. Senate for 14 years. I worked for two committees and for [former Sen.] Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). He was a champion of [the Earned Income Tax Credit]. I went to the Treasury Department for a short stint. During that time, the IRS was under lots of congressional scrutiny. They brought in a business person to reform the IRS. I worked for him for the five years that he was commissioner. Then when he left I moved over to the [Earned Income Tax Credit] office.
AC: How long have you lived in Arlington?
DW: Eight years. I lived in [the District] when I came to Washington and I always thought I would. I made an occasional sojourn to Virginia. But I was looking for a house in D.C. and I went over the bridge and I decided that this was the coolest place. I have just watched the community grow. It is really that urban village; you really feel that in Arlington. I just liked it and I wanted to be here.
AC: What is your favorite part of Arlington?
DW: It depends on the day. I live in a neighborhood very close to Fort C.S. Smith. It’s a Civil War fort that has been turned into a park. It overlooks the Potomac. I walk my dogs there every morning. The lights are just coming up and it’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t believe I get to do that every morning.
I also love Clarendon. It’s being developed and it’s losing its character but I still love it. I enjoy walking around that whole area.
AC: What are your concerns for the community? Is there anything about Arlington you would like to see changed?
DW: The biggest challenge about Arlington is how you manage growth. It’s vibrant and it’s developing but you have to really plan for people to have low-income housing so we don’t drive a whole segment of community away.
And we [also] have to plan for the explosion of high rises. I think that’s happening but I think it’s just something you have to stay on top of. [The entire county] could very easily become a Rosslyn. If you let too much high rise go with lots of concrete [and] no street level stuff going on, you end up having impacts on the community.
AC: What is your favorite book? Why?
DW: "A Prayer For Owen Meany" [by John Irving]. For some reason I really like the way Irving writes. I found elements of that book that really touched me. It’s an incredible book.
AC: If you could take a road trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
DW: I did the trip I wanted to take. I’ve always wanted to go to Australia and I had a business trip there. But I had two days so I had no time. I did the trip but I didn’t do anything while I was there. If I have to go back I want to spend some time in that country. It is a fascinating country. It’s newer than this one in some ways and it’s very much like the United States.
AC: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
DW: That changed ever year. One year I wanted to be a doctor; one year I wanted to be a lawyer. Finally, I decided I wanted to do something in public service. I have not regretted that. There is a lot of talk about whether we can attract the best and brightest. At some point that can be a problem. But if you ever take economics they talk about psychic income, [i.e.] other types of income besides money. I feel very rich in psychic income because of things I get to do in my office.