Josie loves animals. Her love is so deep that when she talks about her financial picture today and where she hopes to be in the future, she immediately uses an animal-based metaphor.
“There’s two levels...the first level is the caterpillar level and the second level is the metamorphosis, butterfly level,” says Josie, a single mom of two.
She puts herself in the first level. She makes ends meet right now, but it requires government assistance and other social services.
“As a caterpillar being financially stable means that I have a job, that I can at least work part time, because it's pretty impossible for me to work full time and be here for my kids and pick them up. Especially with COVID,” she says.
She hopes to one day make it to the “butterfly stage,” a point where she is completely self-sufficient.
“Eventually I want to be the person that doesn't need Section 8 (housing), that doesn't need food stamps, that doesn't need anything,” says Josie.
One program that is helping her financial metamorphosis is CA$H Greater Portland led by United Way of Greater Portland. CA$H Coalitions statewide help empower individuals and families to achieve long-term financial stability through a variety of programs including free tax preparation to qualified filers during tax season. Josie is one of the close to 4,000 people to use this service each year in Maine. CA$H Greater Portland is committed to ensuring that clients have the tools and resources they need to become financially stable.
“I was really surprised that they would [file my taxes for free] actually. I thought that I would have to pay for it,” she says.
The benefit of having her taxes filed for free was multiplied when Josie found out she qualifies for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The tax credit is a benefit for working people with low to moderate income and can often be a key component of helping working people get out of poverty.
Nationwide, about 25 million eligible workers and families received about $63 billion in EITC, as of December 2019. The average amount per household received was $2,476. In Maine alone, 95,000 applicants applied for EITC with $200 million in credits coming back to the state.
For Josie, the refund is the difference between just covering the essentials and being able to plan for the future.
“It makes me feel like I can breathe. Like everything's going to be okay. My family is going to be okay for another year. That's how I feel when I see [my return].”
This year especially Josie needs the room to breathe.
In January, just as the country was learning about COVID-19, Josie’s apartment caught on fire, leaving her, her 12-year-old daughter Jackie, 10-year-old son Kai, and their 8 pets without a home. The family fosters reptiles and finding a new temporary home that could fit them all was challenging. They ended up moving to Vermont for three months, without many of their belongings, including items like heating lamps their reptile friends need.
“I slept for a week and a half with a snake under my shirt, 24/7. I took it in the shower with me, everywhere,” Josie says.
The animals weren’t the only ones having a difficult time. The whole family felt the reverberations of COVID-19 and the fire. As schools moved to virtual learning Josie had to find in-person options for her son, Kai, both in Vermont and after the family moved back to Maine. Kai has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. Losing his sense of routine was tough.
“It was so hard for him,” she says. But through Josie’s persistence, and with the help of Kai’s dad, the family was able to find a school that could meet Kai’s needs, even during a pandemic.
The move had financial consequences as well. Josie couldn’t work while she was in Vermont. Living outside of Maine also made it difficult for her to get the support she usually counts on with necessities like medication and healthcare.
With frequent trips back and forth to Maine, her vehicle made all the difference.
Josie was able to make those trips because she owns her car, something she can afford because of EITC. With the $5,300 credit she received from EITC Josie is able to save a little more money each month. That money helps cover gas, regular car maintenance and unexpected repairs.
EITC and other programs have helped Josie and her family make progress on their goals so much that she often tells other people about their advantages.
“I think that anybody with a family that's working should know about this stuff and should get it because they deserve it. They do. And the kids deserve it.” Josie continues to work hard every day to make sure her kids get what they deserve. But thanks to EITC and CA$H Greater Portland, she isn't just focused on today. She can think about her next stage of financial growth, her “butterfly stage.”
In that stage, she and her kids will own a house with a yard and there will be room for all her bearded dragons, iguanas, geckos and birds.