Canada Revenue Agency’s ethnography of homeless citizens’ access to tax filing

Yes, you read that right. The CRA has carried out an ethnographic study to better understand barriers to income tax filing among those who experience homelessness and insecure housing. Thanks to Christine Pinsent-Johnson for drawing my attention to this fascinating research!

The CRA study began with the premise that homeless citizens may be foregoing crucial access to income and benefits due to barriers they experience filing their taxes. Researchers interviewed 50 people in shelters and social service agencies about their tax filing experiences. The honesty and insight in this study refreshing. Among the barriers that people described (and that many frontline service workers and homeless citizens will recognize):

  1. Government communication cultures can be intimidating. (see section 5.33, para. 1)

“CRA communication, whether online, over the phone, or by mail, can pose a barrier to some homeless and housing-insecure individuals who may struggle to understand the CRA’s technical communication style, or to write or speak in a manner that is comprehensible and acceptable to the CRA.” (para. 20)

2. It’s hard to keep track of documents and remember previous addresses when one is constantly on the move. (see section 5.3.2, para. 10).

“A related barrier is the challenge of obtaining and storing the documents that are required to file one’s taxes and to verify one’s identity while living in a temporary or emergency residence. In situations where a person’s address is not stable or changes frequently, individuals may have difficulty acquiring their Notice of Assessment, slips from employment and social assistance, and other documents required for tax filing.” (para. 25)

3. It’s sometimes difficult to verify one’s identity in ways that are recognized by CRA.  (see section 5.3.1, para. 1).

“When an individual needs to access their information from the CRA or to ask a tax-related question, and if they cannot or do not want to access this information online, their only option is to phone the CRA’s call centre. However, the requirement to confirm one’s identity by answering security questions posed by call centre agents can create a significant barrier for homeless or housing-insecure individuals. Before call centre agents are able to discuss confidential matters, they must ask individuals over the phone to confirm their identity by providing personal details, which the agent verifies against the CRA’s records.  However, in many cases a person’s complex set of circumstances prevents them from easily answering these identifying questions.”

4. People experience technology and digital access barriers. (see section 5.3.4, para. 1)

“Like many other federal government organizations, the CRA has in recent years expanded its online services and encouraged users to take up those services. This includes a shift to online tax filing, the introduction of an online platform for managing tax affairs and receiving correspondence from the CRA, and a transition to online forms of communication and service delivery. While these changes have been largely successful in simplifying the way that many Canadians interact with the CRA, for others this shift has created new barriers to accessing information and benefits.”

I think it’s exciting to see government agencies using the fine-grained lenses of ethnographic research to understand how their services and technologies are actually experienced by marginalized citizens. I look forward to following how this enlightened approach helps CRA (and maybe other government services) design their services to better meet the needs of the growing number of Canadians who experience precarious housing.

This short, well written and compelling study is well worth the read!





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