By Ken McEldowney
We are in the midst of a very tumultuous tax season, with rampant cyber-fraud, identity theft, phone scams and other threats making headlines and causing headaches for taxpayers. But as we enter the homestretch to April 15, there is yet another tax-related challenge that deserves attention — one that has largely escaped scrutiny while making tax time more difficult for millions of Americans.
Without notice or fanfare, the Internal Revenue Service recently ceased producing printed copies of the Tax Guide for Individuals, known as IRS Publication 17. Long available by mail or in libraries and Post Offices, this publication is essential reading for anyone completing their own taxes. The only way to access these critical tax instructions is through the Government Printing Office at a cost of $23, though there is surprisingly no mention on the IRS website of its availability.
Eliminating the paper version of the Tax Guide is clearly a cost-conscious move for the IRS, but the reality is that the cost has been transferred directly to taxpayers, many of whom may need the most help.
While the eradication of the printed Tax Guide makes tax time more difficult for the more than 9 million Americans who prefer to mail in their tax filings, it is especially troubling for the millions of Americans who may not have Internet access or the skills to use a computer.
Over a quarter of American households are without regular Internet access, while 45 percent of senior citizens without a computer, according to the latest census data and figures from the Department of Commerce. Some may argue that having the tax instructions online is enough, but while e-filing is a growing solution for many, we cannot forget that the digital divide is still wide.
It is also significant to note that women, minority groups and low-income households make up the lion’s share of the 25 percent of American households without regular Internet access. Analysis of census data shows that households with incomes below the national average are 18 percent less likely to have Internet access. By eliminating paper tax instructions, the IRS is unwittingly driving Americans without Internet access into the hands of paid preparers — at a cost many can barely afford.
We need the government to provide assistance to all, not exacerbate fraud and abuse by pursuing poorly thought out systems that save paper, yet penalize vulnerable Americans.
Americans, especially those unfamiliar with technology or who don’t have consistent Internet access at home, should have easy access to the Tax Guide in whatever format works best for them. It’s time for Congress to step in and ensure that next tax season, the IRS resumes providing Publication 17 to Americans who need it.
Ken McEldowney is the executive director of Consumer Action.
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