Washington State’s Working Family Tax Credit: A Source of Financial Relief for Survivors of Domestic Abuse

Michael Chan-Lok

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a powerful anti-poverty tool, providing financial relief to millions of Americans each year. But the process of filing for the credit often creates unintentional barriers for survivors of domestic violence. To address these barriers, advocates in Washington state banded together to encourage the legislature to revise the filing guidelines for the state’s EITC. The success of their efforts points to a path forward for advocates in other states and underscores the need to make the federal EITC more inclusive of survivors of domestic violence.

Washington State has consistently demonstrated its willingness to take groundbreaking steps to provide resources to its residents who need it most. In 2021, it became the first state in the country without an income tax to enact a state-level EITC, called the Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC). The credit is estimated to benefit 400,000 Washington families, or about one in seven households, including tax filers using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This was a significant move as ITINs are most commonly issued to non-citizen residents who are usually ineligible for most tax benefits.

Traditionally, the federal EITC guidelines dictate that individuals who file their taxes using the married filing separately status are ineligible to claim the credit. However, these guidelines pose significant challenges for survivors of domestic violence. While there are specific provisions in the current tax law that will grant the EITC to only the survivor, they are less than ideal, as they either require the survivor to file jointly with their abuser OR to live independently and pay at least 50% of household expenses.

Washington State took a different approach.

On May 15, 2023, in an unprecedented and highly welcome move, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed new legislation expanding eligibility to individuals using the married filing separate status—effectively providing additional financial assistance to an estimated 6,000 households, according to the Washington State Department of Revenue. Because of this change, survivors of domestic violence can now access financial relief without having to engage with their spouses, affording them a better chance at financial security, while also prioritizing their safety in allowing them to file independently.

“The way that we’re going to make sure that the EITC is most impactful to people is through systemic change. We have to recognize that the tax code is built on opinions and ideologies, and all of these policies that have real impacts on people,” said Emily Vyhnanek, Working Families Tax Credit Campaign Manager at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. “People have to make really tough and impossible decisions. What does it look like when we make impossible decisions a little bit easier? It truly makes an impact on someone’s life.”

The expanded legislation also addresses the very real fact that people facing domestic violence may be financially dependent on their abusers, making it harder to escape an unsafe situation. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) notes that victims of abuse often cite financial abuse as the main reason that they stay with or return to an abusive partner. Devastatingly, this occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases. Additional studies also link domestic violence to an increased risk of unemployment and being unhoused. Roughly 50% to 60% of women who experience domestic violence at any point participate in economic security programs.

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV), a coalition represented by NNEDV, helped spearhead the effort to prioritize survivors of domestic violence in the expanded legislation by aiming to provide support to survivors, while considering their unique circumstances and challenges.