GULFPORT — In a gutted section of the Boys and Girls Club’s Forest Heights unit, former President Bill Clinton gathered Sunday with residents to help them restore their lives after Hurricane Katrina.
Clinton was in Gulfport to raise awareness of the earned income tax credit available for people with children.
Last year, 365,000 Mississippians applied for the EITC, but 85,000 other who were eligible did not, Clinton said.
"This year, because of Katrina, there will be another 150,000 more who will be eligible in Mississippi," Clinton said.
That’s because some residents earned above the $35,000 or $37,000 income limits, but due to lost income may have fallen below that level and are now eligible.
"You earned it. This is not some sort of welfare check," Clinton told the group of more than 50 residents from the battered neighborhood where the Boys and Girls Club unit is located.
In 1993, when Clinton was in office, he doubled the tax credit, which has been in existence for 30 years. He told residents they only needed to ask for the EITC form when doing their taxes. One single mother he met was a renter before Katrina and did not receive much government assistance. She had also never applied for the EITC and was eligible for three years’ worth of credit, which was $12,000 in her case.
That money, Clinton said, can go toward a down payment on a home, repairs, replenishing clothes and furniture or starting a business.
"It’s amazing to me the number of people eligible for the tax credit who don’t apply," he said. "A lot of people have unique circumstances."
The Clinton Foundation is partnering with Operation Hope Inc. and H&R Block Tax Services in the awareness campaign.
John Bryant, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation Hope, said $9 billion in EITC money was returned to the federal government because one in four people who qualified did not apply.
Getting residents informed and H&R Block’s free tax returns for Katrina victims and other programs geared at economic empowerment and self-help gives residents "a hand up, not a handout," Bryant said.
"You cannot have a rainbow without a storm first," he said.
Clinton also visited with a group of children who were learning how to budget their money, understand the difference between their needs and wants and their income and expenses and other financial responsibilities.
"You have to keep up with your spending as well as what you’re making," Clinton told the group of future taxpayers.
Clinton who, while president, worked to keep children out of poverty, told the Gulfport children "if you don’t have money, you’re not poor," because they still have their families, spirits, minds, hands and bodies.
"President Clinton made many of us feel like we’re not being left behind," Rosie Walters said. "I’m one of those people who didn’t think I could get this (EITC). I actually qualify for all kinds of tax stuff now after Katrina. This really helps."
The Clinton and Operation Hope partnership has raised enough money to provide two staff members to that area for six months, Bryant said.
Branson and Bradley Davis traveled from Jackson to give the $232 they raised to Katrina victims.
"I wanted to help people," Branson, 7, said.
"We wanted to do something good for people," Bradley, 6, added.
Clinton briefly mentioned that a priority on how to spend the millions of dollars he and former President George H.W. Bush have raised will go toward education, particularly two-year colleges.
That’s because training and the job markets will be different in many aspects in a post-Katrina workplace, Clinton said.
Reporter Brad Crocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 934-1431.