In April of 2020, many people saw $1,200 pop up in their bank accounts as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) started distributing Economic Impact Payments (EIP). However, it wasn’t that easy for millions of people with low or no income who didn’t have a bank account on file with the IRS.

Karon Baldwin hadn’t thought to apply for an EIP until someone suggested he call Legal Aid’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) to see if he was eligible. Baldwin had been recently released from prison and wasn’t sure where to start. Xue Bai, a third-year law student at the University of Minnesota who clerks with Legal Aid, took his case.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without her,” Baldwin says. “After 24 years everything is different. I didn’t know much about setting up an email account and she helped me figure it all out.”

Pivot to Guidance on Stimulus Payments

Aisha Servaty, Assistant Supervising Attorney and Director of the LITC, decided in April to see if LITC could be helpful for people who needed to apply for EIPs. In the first week, she and one other LITC attorney saw over 80 intakes, far more than they could handle. The entire Consumer Law unit started working on the cases, and other units across Legal Aid pitched in as well. In the end, Servaty trained more than 35 MMLA staff, pro bono attorneys, and law clerks (including Bai) to help with the EIP work.

On September 24, 2020, a court decision ruled that currently and recently incarcerated individuals were eligible for EIPs. The decision was quickly followed by an appeal, and mixed messaging from the IRS confused the process. Servaty scrambled to stay on top of each change and communicate accurate information not just in the Twin Cities, but throughout Minnesota.

“I’ve been so touched when I hear people say they don’t believe they’re eligible, or don’t think they deserve it,” says Bai, who helped a number of incarcerated people. “I tell them, as long as they have a Social Security number and did not and were not required to file a 2018 tax return, they’re eligible.”

Removing Barriers

Servaty worked with community organizers, the Department of Corrections, and various agencies and services to connect with people who needed the payments most and were least likely to access them on their own. A telephone pop-up clinic at the Capitol Ridge Hotel in Ramsey County served unhoused individuals with lawyers walking them through the non-filer tool over the phone.

“There are many barriers for non-English speakers, unhoused people, incarcerated individuals, and the really poor community,” Servaty explains. “They need a phone, computer and internet access, electricity, and they need to call within set hours. Our priority was to eliminate as many barriers as possible.”

Standing with Clients

Through the Process LITC helped over 550 people with their EIPs. For some, it was confirming eligibility or giving advice. But for most, LITC walked them through the entire process, followed up to be sure their application was accepted, and interfaced with the IRS when necessary.

Flexible funding from donors and grants was critical to cover LITC’s additional workload. Legal Aid’s ability to shift resources to the LITC team meant that hundreds of thousands of dollars were delivered to the intended recipients.

Karon Baldwin was one of the 200 recently or currently incarcerated who were helped by LITC. The personalized help he received from Bai made a huge difference.

“She was right on time, and she followed up and let me know everything was on track,” Baldwin says. “I took a lot of college courses in prison, and this payment will help me get a good start without having to ask so many people for help.”

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