Filing taxes is required by law, but 57 percent of Americans don’t understand the tax code. That’s not surprising, since the code, and documents associated with it, add up to more than 76,550 pages. Complicating things even further is the GOP tax bill that took effect in 2018: people who itemize deductions on their returns are paying less than they should during the year, thanks to outdated W-4 forms not tailored to the new code. That could mean a payment instead of a refund in April — something that 27 percent of taxpayers aren’t confident they’ll be able to pay, according to a survey by Tax Slayer, an online filing service. That’s where VITA comes in: Thousands of trained and certified volunteers complete millions of tax forms for families who qualify for assistance each year. One of VITA’s main objectives is making sure families take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit, something a fifth of taxpayers who qualify for don’t take. This credit lifted 5.8 million people out of poverty in 2016. Watch the above video to learn more about how VITA and similar organizations work to help families in need during tax season. More:This Anti-Poverty Initiative Was Born in a Hospital Waiting Room
The digital divide, an alarming technology gap in our nation’s public schools that threatens to leave children in disadvantaged districts behind, cuts across small rural towns and big cities alike.
Across the nation, approximately 6.5 million U.S. students lack connectivity to the Internet. And half our country’s teachers lack the support to incorporate technology into their lessons.
The one-hour documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America,” directed by Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy and narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, profiles schools, teachers and students who are hurt by a lack of technology access.
“There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the innovation of technology,” Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, which produced “Without a Net” points out. “How can we not give kids the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults?” “Without a Net” recently premiered on National Geographic and is a selection at the New York Film Festival. Watch the film now at digitaldivide.com. This post was paid for by Verizon.
At Jameira Miller’s high school in Lansdowne, Pa., using technology means punching buttons on a calculator. To use a computer, the soft-spoken senior has to give up lunch to wait in line at the media center, which only has a few desktops. Yet five miles away, students at a different school enjoy courses in computer-aided drafting design, engineering and robotics.
Welcome to the “digital divide,” the alarming technology gap in our nation’s public schools that threatens to leave children in disadvantaged districts behind. It’s the focus of Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America.”
The one-hour film, narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, profiles schools, teachers and students, including Miller, who are hurt by a lack of technology access. The hardware shortage is just the start. Approximately 6.5 million U.S. students still lack connectivity to the Internet. Half our country’s teachers lack the support to incorporate technology into their lessons.
The digital divide cuts across small rural towns and big cities alike. The only common denominator: a lack of federal, state and local funding. Live in the “wrong” zip code and not only will your child’s ability to learn be affected, but her odds of thriving in the future will also be impacted, explains Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, which produced “Without a Net.”
“There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the innovation of technology,” Kirk points out. “How can we not give kids the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults?”
The argument, “Well, I didn’t have technology when I went to school,” isn’t valid, she says.
“When people ask, ‘Is it really necessary?’ my answer is yes,” says Kirk. “And then I ask them, ‘Who are you hiring today who can’t type on a computer?’”
UP TO SPEED: The Digital Divide in America
Through the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative,the company has committed $160 million in free technology devices, connectivity, teacher training and hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning for kids in need. So far, the programhas helped 300,000 students in 1,900 schools and clubs. After measuring its impact, Kirk says, Verizon knew it was on to something big: 64 percent of kids who participated were more eager to go to college. And 53 percent decided to pursue STEM careers.
Still, “the answer to the digital divide isn’t as simple as ‘let’s give away technology to everyone,’” Kirk notes.
That’s where “Without a Net” comes in.
“We wanted to tell a story,” Kirk says. “Not about Verizon, but about the bigger issue. We wanted to take a closer look at the ecosystem [of the digital divide] — the students, parents, teachers, schools, government, curriculum, zip codes — and shine a light on what our opportunities could be.”
Kennedy was the perfect filmmaker to take on that challenge. “Giving back is in Rory’s DNA,” says Kirk, a NationSwell Council member. “She has incredible compassion for the underserved.”
The film’s narrative, and Kennedy’s focus, remains firmly on those teetering closest to the digital divide. A sixth grader in New York shows how she types out school assignments on her mom’s phone. (“A 10-minute assignment can take her an hour,” her teacher worries.) A frustrated principal in rural Pennsylvania shows off a storage room filled with brand new Chromebooks — which can’t be used since his school can’t afford Wi-Fi.
In Coachella, Calif., one of the poorest school districts in the state, teenagers spend their weekends sitting inside parked school buses outfitted with Wi-Fi routers. Since their families can’t afford Internet access at home, these buses are their only chance to go online and finish homework.
Kirk knows putting an end to tech inequality requires many factors, including reliable connectivity at schools and homes, mobile digital devices, immersive teacher training, tech-ed focused curriculum — and plenty of visionary leaders. (Those Coachella buses tricked out with Wi-Fi? They were the brainchild of a principal who saw his students struggling.)
That’s why Verizon is committed to continue handing out tablets, training teachers and offering free tech labs to kids who need them the most. And it’ll continue giving a voice to the issue with its campaign, #weneedmore.
When Kirk saw the final cut of “Without a Net,” “I cried,” she admits. The scene that touched a nerve: When Miller learns all those lunches she missed for the opportunity to use a computer were worth it — because she’s been accepted to college. “Without a Net” recently premiered on National Geographic and is a selection at the New York Film Festival. Watch the film now at digitaldivide.com. This post was paid for by Verizon.
Historically, Democrats and Republicans have seldom seen eye-to-eye on any tax issue — except the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable tax credit at both the state and federal levels given to the working poor. Conservatives support it because it’s connected to earned income; liberals believe the government should provide financial support to needy families. Today, an estimated 28 million low and moderate-income families could benefit from the EITC (eligibility is determined by annual household income, the number of hours worked and number of children), which is now widely regarded as themost successful way to get families above the poverty line, according to policy analysts. As bickering across the aisle creates an impasse in our nation’s capital, lawmakers in California recently approved a bipartisan solution (introduced by a Republican, passed by a Democratic dominated legislature) that could provide a model for federal lawmakers debating tax reform and how best to help struggling Americans.
THE RIGHT BACKS AWAY
Introduced in 1975, Congress passed the federal EITC at a time many other welfare programs were being criticized for their wild inefficiencies (most were eventually scrapped). Its aim: To get people back to work and off of public assistance by returning a portion of their income tax payment. Throughout its existence, the credit has been expanded by every president, with Ronald Reagan (who called it “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress”) backing one of the biggest increases. In 2016, The American Action Forum, a conservative-leaning economic policy group, recognized thebenefit of expanding the credit. And a2014 House Budget Committee Report, headed by Republicans, said the credit was “an effective tool for encouraging and rewarding work among lower-income individuals, particularly single mothers.” Despite this, Republican support has dwindled in recent years as far right members of the GOP advocate for significant cuts to government spending. In 2014, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he would agree to an expansion of the EITC, but only if it wouldn’t result in increased spending. (Experts said that growth of the program would inevitably mean more money would be returned to workers, costing the federal government an estimated $91 billion, based upon 2015 tax code.) Conservatives have also argued that there’s no need to expand the EITC since an increase in the minimum wage would provide the same monetary benefits to workers. And there is concern about fraud. The Internal Revenue Service estimates close to $13 billion in credits, or21 to 26 percent of filings, were given out that likely shouldn’t have been.
PLAYING CATCH UP
California has been a progressive leader in sustainability practices and social programs, but until recently, its EITC efforts lagged behind states like Maryland, Minnesota and Rhode Island, all which expanded their credit programs in 2014. (Rhode Island legislators backed further expansion last year.) “California has the nation’s highest poverty rate, counting the cost of living, and families still need to make several times the federal poverty level income to afford basic necessities,” states anopinion piece in the Orange County Register, adding that families would need a minimum wage of $31 per hour to survive in the state. By these standards, an expansion was necessary. In June, thestate expanded its EITC to meet the minimums needed for a family to get by in one of the nation’s most expensive states, where the average rent is 50 percent higher than the rest of the country. The expansion enables independent contractors and freelancers working in California’s gig economy to qualify for the credit, now mirroring federal and other states’ rules. It also increased the minimum income requirements from $13,870 to $22,300 so that families earning the state’s new minimum wage could qualify.
MORE HELPFUL READING ABOUT THE EARNED INCOME TAX CREDIT
America is one of the largest offenders of food waste in the world, according to a recent survey. Every year, roughly 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown out worldwide, a considerable problem given that agriculture contributes about 22 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions and12.7 million people go hungry in America alone. Entrepreneurs across several sectors have created ways to repurpose food. Their efforts are admirable and economical, but the biggest difference will be if you make food waste reduction a daily habit.
On College Campuses
On average, a student who lives in university housing throws out 141 pounds of food per year. Multiply that by the number of residential colleges around the country, and it becomes a huge problem, says Regina Northouse, executive director for the Food Recovery Network, the only nonprofit dealing specifically with campus food waste. WATCH:How Much Food Could Be Rescued If College Dining Halls Saved Their Leftovers? Northouse’s group reduces waste by enlisting the help of student volunteers at 226 universities. This manpower shuttles still-edible food from dining halls that would otherwise be thrown out to local nonprofits fighting hunger. Northouse estimates that since 2011, Food Recovery Network has fed 150,000 food-insecure people.
If a carrot isn’t quite orange enough, odds are it’ll be tossed. Blemishes and unattractive produce make up nearly 40 percent of discarded food, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Though some unused fruits and veggies can be sent to food manufacturers, farmers lose profits from about a quarter of their crops because of cosmetic imperfections. To put money back into their pockets, box subscriptions services, such as Hungry Harvest, have found their way into the ugly food market. “We started out with 10 customers at a stand,” says Stacy Carroll, director of partnerships for Hungry Harvest. “We now have thousands of customers every week buying thousands of pounds of food that would, in the past, have been thrown away.”
Roughly 10,000 subscribers along the East Coast receive weekly boxes of recovered produce from the Baltimore-based company (which was started by the founders of Food Recovery Network). In addition, food insecure families who use SNAP benefits can purchase boxes at 10 Hungry Harvest sites. All in all, the organization redistributes between 60,000 and 80,000 pounds of food through its subscription service each week.
At Food Retailers
For merchants, food wasted is also money wasted. Across the U.S., the cost of tossing food runs upward of $165 billion annually. MealConnect, a tech platform launched in April by Feeding America (a nationwide network of food banks), allows retailers to post surplus meals and unused produce on its app, which then notifies local food banks workers to pick it up and redistribute it to those in need. The company has recovered 333 million pounds of food by working with large retailers like Walmart and Starbucks. MealConnect also allows merchants to recoup some of their outlays (via tax deductions).
In 2015, the aptly named food popup wastED found itself in the heart of a media frenzy because of what was on the menu: trashed food. Since then, a handful of other restaurants in urban areas across the world have used recovered produce in their meals. “We’re offering our cooks the opportunity to be creative and come up with menus instead,” says Brooklyn, N.Y., chef Przemek Adolf, owner of Saucy By Nature, which uses leftovers from previous catering events to create daily lunch and dinner specials.
In Your Own Kitchen
Individual families throw away nearly $1,600 worth of food per year, according to the EPA, which has spurred the federal government to step in and help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the app FoodKeeper, which informs consumers on how long an apple can last in the fridge, for example, and proper food storage techniques to extend shelf life. It also sends out reminder alerts to use up food that’s in danger of spoiling. The desired outcome? People changing their behaviors, ultimately buying less and consuming what they do purchase.
Between 1979 and 2013, wages of middle-income workers rose just 6 percent. The wallets of low-income workers have been hit even harder: Their incomes fell 5 percent during the same time period. As stagnant wages and flat mobility continue to deepen inequality in America, politicians, social entrepreneurs and other leaders are looking to technology for a solution. The number of jobs in computers and information technology is projected to increase 12 percent by 2024 — faster than any other sector. According to industry experts, nearly 60 million of Americans can’t even access the internet in their own homes because of cost. To spur much-needed job growth, the digital divide must be eliminated. Watch the video above to see how EveryoneOn‘s pioneering model is leading the way by making high-speed, low-cost internet plans, refurbished computers and digital literacy courses available to low-income communities nationwide.
At NationSwell, our mission is to highlight solutions driving America forward. From rural Appalachia to South Central Los Angeles, we’ve covered the work of dedicated individuals fighting to improve people’s lives. Here are a few updates on how President Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts to social programs could gradually rollback the positive impact made by these initiatives.
If it looks like summer camp, and kids are having fun like they do at summer camp, it must be summer camp, right? Not if you’re talking about Horizons National’s intensive, six-week-long summer session. Watch the video above to see how the program utilizes project-based learning, extracurriculars like swimming and gardening and a low 5:1 student-to-teacher ratio (compared to 16.1 nationally) to instill a love of learning in students. At a time when all eyes are on the latest proposed cuts to education and numerousstates have already slashed school spending, Horizons has found an innovative, fun way to help close the achievement gap between kids living in poverty and their more affluent peers. Its low-income students are succeeding — both in school and beyond. MORE:What Does Swimming Have to Do With Stopping the Summer Slide?
One hot afternoon in late August, I spotted a familiar face as I exited the Prospect Avenue subway station in New York City’s South Bronx. It was Tonya, one of my former students. She was holding the hand of a young girl dressed in an orange school uniform.
Bright and focused on earning her high school diploma, Tonya’s plans to go to college changed when she became pregnant during her senior year with Destiny, the girl whose hand she held. After a three month hiatus from school, Tonya graduated, and went on to have two more children — all by the age of 22. As a single mother, she worked odd jobs and collected food stamps to make ends meet.
I know first hand that Tonya’s story is not uncommon where she lives in Community District 3. I am the cofounder of Kinvolved, a company that is working in her community to increase graduation rates by fighting school absenteeism. Tonya lives in the poorest congressional district in the country, where about 37 percent of residents live in poverty and nearly 50 percent of residents earn less than a high school degree. By targeting the specific challenges facing the area’s youth, there’s hope to dramatically alter their futures. South Bronx Rising Together is a group of neighborhood stakeholders working to improve the quality of life of neighborhood residents, in part, by ensuring that kids are college and career ready. Focused on elevating literacy rates, the organization discovered that student absenteeism is the main cause of lower-than-average scores. SBRT uses Collective Action Networks (CANs) made up of families, educators, business leaders, service providers and others to combat absenteeism. Research proves chronic absence patterns can predict students’ graduation as early as sixth grade. New York City schools have one of the highest chronic absence rates in the country; public schools in Community District 3 have some of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the city: 36.6 percent of preK-12 students miss a month or more of school each year. As SBRT analyzed absentee data, my colleagues and I at Kinvolved were working to help schools address absenteeism. We developed an app — KiNVO— that schools use to track attendance and to send text messages to families so they know whether or not their children are in class in real time. More than 100,000 stakeholders at 90 preK-12 schools in New York City benefit from KiNVO. At schools using the app, attendance rates improved 13 times that of an average NYC school. As a CAN participant, my efforts focus on supporting the 60 schools in Community District 3. My CAN colleagues and I recruit schools in the neighborhood to be “All-In” schools, meaning they have committed to joining the fight against chronic absenteeism. By the end of the school year, there will be 30 “All-In” schools that participate in SBRT-sponsored events, webinars and meetings to exchange best practices to elevate attendance. In part, as a result of these efforts, “All-In” schools that had regular attendance meetings and staff dedicated to attendance, experienced a drop in absenteeism between 5.7 percent and 10.3 percent from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year. According to SBRT co-directors Elizabeth Clay-Roy and Abe Fernandez, the organization wants its model and learnings to be open sourced. That way, improvement in school attendance will extend beyond Community District 3 in the South Bronx to the entire country. Looking back, I have realized that I learned about SBRT and its focus on chronic absenteeism just before my reunion with Tonya and her daughter Destiny. That day, as we parted ways, I hugged Tonya goodbye and felt Destiny’s small arms hugging my knees. I looked down at her eager smile and bright eyes and wished her a wonderful school year. I believe that through the work of South Bronx Rising Together and also Kinvolved’s progress in fighting chronic absenteeism, we’re going to help Destiny and her peers achieve a future that hasn’t been as easily attained for her mother. Miriam Altman is the chief executive officer and cofounder of Kinvolved. Correction: The original version of this post misidentified Miriam Altman in the second photo. NationSwell apologizes for the error.