04/02/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Working for the Tax Man? For Grandfamilies, Not Anymore

Books, magazines and online articles abound with ideas for bringing older and younger generations together in activities that promote bonding between the ages. But who would have thought that a tax preparation event would do that -- and pay big dividends for those who took part?

Yet that's precisely what happened recently when the Food Bank of New York City coordinated an intergenerational tax event at the Bronx Library Center.

On the morning of the event, grandmothers raising grandchildren boarded a bus at their home, the Grandparent Family Apartments in the Bronx. Minutes later, they arrived at the library center where they were greeted by computer-savvy teen volunteers from the nearby Frederick Douglass Academy. The teens were on hand to help their elders learn how to file their taxes online for free. At first, the grands -- many of whom had never touched a computer -- were as skeptical as the teens were eager. The skepticism didn't last long, though. Within minutes the teens had their elders logging in and preparing their taxes.

During the tax prep, the students upped the ante: they introduced the grandmothers to a smartphone app -- the EITC Finder -- that would let the elders quickly and easily calculate whether they qualified for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable federal income tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and families. Eligibility for the EITC depends on the taxpayer's circumstances (income and number of dependents, for example). Those who qualify can get significantly more dollars back in their tax refund. For grandfamilies, who often struggle to make ends meet, the EITC can be a godsend.

That's important because today 7.8 million children live in households where grandparents or other relatives are the householders. Many of these grandparents have low incomes and many are on fixed incomes with their dollars already stretched to the max. By giving the children loving homes and keeping them out of the foster care system, these heroic older adults save the nation an estimated $6.5 billion yearly in foster care and related costs. They do so at tremendous sacrifice and without complaint. For grandparents reporting responsibility for grandchildren nearly 61 percent are in the workforce, and just over 21 percent live below the poverty line. That's nearly two times the poverty rate of other older adults.

The very least we can do is help grandfamilies receive the greatest tax benefits for which they qualify. To do less, would be to turn our backs on a tremendous national resource.

So back to the tax event. It's easy to imagine how proud and relieved the grandmothers were to conquer a new technology and find their biggest tax refund possible. At the same time, you can also imagine what a boost it was to the teenagers. They were able to help their older friends feel at ease with computers and allay some of their financial worries.

That's the beauty of intergenerational connections: we can find ways to bond under any circumstance -- and we come away knowing that we've enriched someone else's life in a profound way. In a larger sense, we strengthen our entire community.

For years, older adults have mentored the young, helping them learn how to read and write, master arithmetic, and gain important social skills. As the Bronx tax event illustrates, we are also seeing a rise in reverse mentoring. Young people are now empowering older adults by helping them master new technologies that can help make their lives more secure, more interesting, and often more fun.

Tax season is always a time of stress and worry, especially for those on fixed or limited incomes. It's now early April and tax season is drawing to a close, but there's still time to get the word out about the EITC and the EITC Finder.

Years ago, the Beatles song "Taxman" ended with the refrain, "'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman, and you're working for no one but me." The EITC helps ensure low- and moderate-income taxpayers don't work for the taxman, but for their own family's financial betterment.