Working families who rely on a federal tax credit to help pay the bills are getting a break this tax season: They can qualify for the credit based on whichever year’s income — 2019 or 2020 — puts the most cash in their pocket.

The earned-income tax credit was claimed by about 27 million people in 2019, mostly lower- and middle-income Americans with children.

The maximum credit for 2020 is $6,660, for families with three or more children. Last year, the average credit was about $2,500 a return, the Internal Revenue Service reports.

“It’s quite substantial,” said Timothy Flacke, executive director of Commonwealth, a nonprofit organization in Boston that promotes financial security.

The size of the credit varies based on income, family size and filing status. The credit is “refundable,” which means filers can claim it and receive it as a refund even if they do not owe any taxes.

To claim the credit, filers must have so-called earned income — like wages or salary from an employer or self-employment income from gig jobs or freelancing. Jobless benefits do not count, nor does money received from sources like alimony and child support.


Many people lost work in 2020 because of the pandemic, and their income fell, which means their credit would probably be smaller than the year before. Typically, the size of the credit goes up as your income increases, up to the maximum credit allowed.

Research by Commonwealth early in the pandemic suggested that some working families’ tax refunds could fall as much as 80% because of a loss of income in 2020 — a potential shock to working families who rely on refunds to pay bills and buy necessities.

But in December, the federal government approved a so-called “lookback” option for the credit because of the pandemic. That means filers can use income from either last year or the year before to figure out their earned-income tax credit — whichever results in the bigger credit.

The “lookback” also applies to the child tax credit, which is partly refundable. The credit is worth up to $2,000 for each child younger than 17.

The problem is that some people may not know about the option, Flacke said. He urged people to have their 2019 tax return handy when they do their taxes or meet with their preparer and to double-check which year’s income would result in a bigger refund.

So, how do you qualify for the earned-income tax credit? For 2020, the credit is available for families earning up to about $57,000. Individual filers earning up to about $16,000, with no children, can get a credit of up to $538. (There are also limits on investment income.)


You can see if you qualify by using the IRS’ online assistant.

Because many people lost income last year, families who do not usually claim the credit might qualify for it this year, the IRS said.

Even in a normal year, millions of eligible people fail to claim the credit, according to the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. Some people have income so low that they are not required to file a federal tax return and may not realize they can claim the credit by filing one.

Roxy Caines, director of the earned-income tax credit campaign at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group, encouraged filers to check if they qualify since changes in family situations as well as income may affect eligibility. Plus, if you did not claim the credit in a previous year, but think you would have qualified, you can file and claim it for up to three previous years, she said.

The IRS began accepting tax year 2020 returns Feb. 12. People expecting refunds usually file early. But because of fraud-prevention steps, the IRS must wait until after mid-February to issue refunds to most people claiming the earned-income credit. Early filers should start receiving their refunds this month. They can check the status of their refund using the IRS’ refund tool at


In addition to the federal credit, more than half the states plus the District of Columbia offer their own earned-income tax credits. The credits are typically figured as a percentage of the federal credit.

Free tax help is available to people needing assistance in filing returns and claiming the credits. Options include Get Your Refund, a program of Code for America generally serving families with income up to $66,000; the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA program, which is run by the IRS and helps people earning up to $57,000; and the AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide, focusing on low- to moderate-income people and people older than 50.

The programs offer free help from IRS-certified volunteers, and most offer options for remote assistance, whether by phone or online, during the pandemic. You can find locations near you by searching on the program links.

All that applies to the tax return you are filing this year. What about the return you will file next year, for 2021?

The American Rescue Plan, the federal government’s latest pandemic-relief measure, makes temporary changes for tax year 2021 to both the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit.

It roughly triples the maximum earned-income tax credit for childless households and makes more taxpayers eligible by expanding the age range of people who qualify.


The legislation also expands the child tax credit for 2021, increasing it to as much as $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children five and younger), and raising the age limit for qualifying children to 17, from 16. Plus, the credit is fully refundable.

Families do not have to wait until filing next year’s return to pocket some of the money; they can get half their credit in payments from the IRS, starting as soon as July, as an advance on their 2021 taxes.

The IRS has not announced details. Elaine Maag, a principal research associate at the Tax Policy Center, said the agency has been instructed to base the advance payments on information on file — your 2020 return, if you have filed it, or 2019 otherwise.

If the advance payments are larger than the credit calculated when taxpayers file their return in 2021, they “generally” will have to pay back the excess, although there will be protections for lower-income people, according to the Congressional Research Service.