Every year, low-income Californians leave an estimated $2 billion on the table.
The pot of unclaimed money is known as the earned income tax credit.
And Californians have access to it twice over — through programs offered by both the state and federal governments.
The payments, often amounting to thousands of dollars, can make the difference between living above or below the poverty line, supporters say.
Yet one recent survey found that fewer than one in five eligible Californians had ever heard of the state program.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Joe Sanberg, whose group CalEITC4Mewas formed to spread awareness about the credit.
Started in 2015, California’s program has had bipartisan backing, though some critics have questioned whether the state can afford it.
The payments have averaged about $520, with families getting more: as much as $2,700.
In the first year of the program, estimates suggested more than 200,000 eligible Californians failed to claim the credit.
That number could grow. This summer, state leaders agreed to expand the program to more workers, meaning nearly triple the number of Californians could qualify — roughly 1.7 million altogether.
The toughest challenge has been to reach those workers who don’t submit tax returns at all, said Alissa Anderson, senior policy analyst with the California Budget and Policy Center.
Many low-wage workers are not required to file, so they don’t. That means tax services that might otherwise flag the earned income tax credit never get the chance.
That’s where nonprofits like CalEITC4Me are trying to step in.
Mr. Sanberg, the founder, was in Compton on Tuesday to announce a partnership with the city’s school district.
Speaking to a gathering of parents at Dickison Elementary, he cited statistics that suggest most Californians couldn’t manage a surprise expense in the hundreds of dollars — whether to deal with a broken wrist, or a busted pipe.
Imagine that anxiety, he said, “It shouldn’t be like that and it doesn’t have to be like that.”