WATSONVILLE - If you're one of the more than 20,000 Santa Cruz County families making less than $50,000 a year, Uncle Sam may have a nice surprise for you at tax time.
Through the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, you may be eligible for a refund of up to $5,751 - even if no taxes were withheld from your pay in 2011.
Some low-income individuals can claim the credit too, and if you need help figuring it all out, free tax preparation assistance is available.
That was the message representatives from local nonprofits and the IRS wanted to get out with a presentation at the Watsonville Certified Farmers Market on Friday.
"Out of five people who qualify across the nation, only four claim (the credit)," said Raul Polo, a tax specialist with the IRS. "That's why we're out trying to reach the maximum."
The credit, the nation's largest anti-poverty program, is designed to improve the finances of the working poor.
Jan Shirchild of nonprofit Project Scout, which provides free tax preparation assistance to low-income people and senior citizens, said it works. She said last year, she helped a woman who was living in her pickup and was separated from her daughter because of the living arrangement. She had a line on an apartment, but didn't have the first and last month's rent for the deposit. Her earned income credit gave her the cash she needed to rent the place and reunite her family.
It's good for the community, too, as the refunds are typically spent, keeping businesses open and workers employed, Shirchild said.
"I makes a huge difference," she said.
The average credit received last year by county residents was $1,600.
Jenna Grambort, an attorney with the Watsonville Law Center, advised against using professional tax preparers who charge fees for a service available for free, and sometimes persuade taxpayers to take what's known as an "instant refund" but is essentially a high-interest loan. A better plan, she said, is to go to a volunteer tax preparer - who must pass the same certifying tests as the professionals - and file electronically. Refunds generally come in seven to 10 days, she said.
Volunteers work at sites throughout the county. Hours vary. For information, call 211.