An estimated 20,000 households in Baltimore City are missing out on tax refunds, leaving unclaimed some $50 million that advocates said could help lift them out of poverty.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen marked Friday, the first day his agency started to accept 2013 returns, by urging Baltimore families to seek free tax preparation help.


"It may take me a little while to convince people we're from the IRS and we're here to help you," Koskinen said to laughs at a press conference hosted by the Baltimore CASH Campaign. "On the other hand we do spend a lot of time trying to reach out to taxpayers generally and make it as easy as possible to understand what they owe and make it as easy as possible to pay their taxes."

Families earning up to about $52,000 a year are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which can provide refunds to working families who meet income and other specifications. A single parent with one child earning about $38,000 can receive a credit up to $3,250 back.

"There is nothing more important right now than getting the word out to those folks that are unaware of this," Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said. "Not everyone's going to use the money right. Let's be honest — people are people. But a lot of people will take this and invest it in climbing the economic opportunity ladder a few rungs."

In 2013, about 75,680 households in Baltimore and some 402,000 in Maryland filed 2012 returns seeking the federal earned income tax credit. The average refund in Baltimore was about $2,500.

About 20 percent of eligible workers do not receive the credit, according to IRS estimates. In Maryland, that number is higher, about 24 percent according to an IRS survey from tax year 2010.

"This is something that is very important," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "There is money being left on the table and it belongs to you."

"You can have the opportunity but if you don't know about it, it doesn't work, said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "$50 million. Imagine what that would do … for the economy."

The low participation rate is due to the complexity of the tax code and the difficulty of finding trusted help, as well as a lack of awareness, said Sara Johnson, director of the Baltimore CASH Campaign, which offers free tax prep to families earning less than $52,000 at 12 sites around the city and hosted Friday's event.

Already, a 211 call center has fielded more than 2,600 calls about tax services and scheduled 2,000 appointments for help, according to Mark Furst, president of United Way of Central Maryland, which is a member of the coalition.

Patrice Payne, 30, of Catonsville, a patient care technician with two children, who had an appointment Friday at the Center for Urban Families on North Monroe Street, said she has sought free tax help for the last four years, after getting charged several hundred dollars for similar services.

"It saved me from having to pay," she said.