SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - California Democratic lawmakers began their election-year convention by hosting a Friday press conference to tout the benefits of the earned income tax credit, devised to benefit low-income working individuals and families.
"I and so many of the people here this weekend work in public service so that we can help make lives a little bit easier for people who work hard but don't make much money for their efforts," California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said.
The California Earned Income Tax Credit, or CalEITC, was passed by the California Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015. This year is the first year the $380 million program is available to low-income workers in the Golden State.
Joseph Sanberg leads CalEITC4Me, which is in charge of implementing the program. Sanberg estimates more than 600,000 Californians are eligible to apply and would receive an average of a $900 back come tax time.
"The people who are eligible need this money and it's their money," Sanberg said. "It's food for the kids, transportation to get jobs, and rent."
Many of the officials in attendance, including State Controller Betty Yee, talked about the need to perform extensive outreach since many eligible workers either don't file taxes or don't know they are eligible for the benefits.
Sanberg said his organization will distribute grants to local nonprofits to help spread the word, along with attempting to make tax-filing services more accessible to low-income workers.
Under the CalEITC, individuals making less than $6,580 and families making less than $13,870 are eligible for the credit program.
The federal earned income tax program applies to families making less than $53,267 in gross income. While acknowledging the large discrepancy, Atkins said the program was devised to help the most vulnerable in California's workforce initially.
"We need to be focused on the people in our state who are the most vulnerable, particularly in a state where costs are high," Atkins said.
If the program proves successful, there is room for a potential expansion, she said.
Yee said the state program has an added benefit in that it signs up workers for the federal tax credit program as well.
California taxpayers leave more than a billion dollars worth of federal tax credits on the table annually. In 2015, approximately $1.8 billion in federal earned-income tax refunds went unclaimed by eligible working Californians, according to Sanberg.
"With this partnership that we have this year, we believe that the opportunity exists to capture those that haven't even come forward for the federal credits," Yee said.
The fact lawmakers chose to kickoff the 2016 California Democrats State Convention with a press conference about state programs devised to assist the working poor is symbolically significant, according to Santa Clara County Democratic Party chair Steve Preminger.
"We have some of the nation's wealthiest companies here in Santa Clara," Preminger said. "But we have many people who aren't doing well. The economy isn't working for them and as Democrats we are very serious about fighting poverty."
Sarah Delte, a single mother living San Jose and a beneficiary of the tax credit, said the program was vital in helping provide necessary funds for herself and her nine-year-old son.
"I work and make minimum wage," she said. "It's been a blessing. It's helped me out with my housing, with my child care, all the simple little things."
Californians must file taxes by April 18 to qualify for the credit, available for the first time this tax cycle.
Single mothers working part-time are the largest demographic group eligible to receive the tax credits, according to CalEITC4Me.
The California Democratic Convention runs through Sunday, Feb. 27. It's the largest annual gathering of elected leaders. Vice President Joe Biden is slated to give the convention's keynote address on Saturday.
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich are also scheduled to speak.
For more information on the CalEITC program, visit www.CalEITC4Me.org .
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