Ethnographic Project focused on the Tax Filing Experiences of the Homeless and Housing Insecure

The CRA undertook an ethnographic project focused on the tax filing experiences of the homeless and housing insecure. Researchers worked directly with persons from these populations to gain insight into barriers to accessing tax benefits. The project will improve services to vulnerable Canadians to enhance their standard of living, and underscores the value of innovative qualitative research.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Filing a personal tax return provides low-income Canadians with the opportunity to increase their finances by accessing a range of federal and provincial tax credits and benefits. This is especially important for vulnerable populations, such as individuals experiencing homelessness or those who are at risk of homelessness. Despite the economic advantages of tax filing, there are some Canadians who do not file due to a range of barriers, from the complexity of the tax system to the lack of awareness of available tax benefits, to the difficulty assembling tax documentation. The CRA is responsible for ensuring that Canadians are able to access the tax benefits they are entitled to. One initiative that supports this priority is the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP), which is a partnership between the CRA and community organizations across Canada to provide free tax preparation services for individuals and families who have simple tax situations and a modest income.

The CVITP serves a diverse range of Canadians including seniors, Indigenous people, youth, newcomers, and people with disabilities. Given the broad spectrum of clientele who access the CVITP, it can be challenging to understand the needs of specific groups. This is particularly true of the homeless and housing insecure, for whom quantitative tax data is lacking. In order to fill these gaps, the CRA undertook an innovative project focused on understanding the needs and experiences of these individuals with the ultimate goal of improving their access to tax benefits. In particular, the research sought to:

• develop insight into the homeless and housing insecure populations who use the CVITP, or are potential users, to better understand the barriers they face in filing taxes and accessing tax benefits.

• illuminate potential directions for improving service and outreach to vulnerable populations.

The project was undertaken by two researchers from the CRA’s Innovation Lab in partnership with representatives from program areas and with the cooperation of social services agencies (such as emergency shelters and community health centers) hosting CVITP clinics. The field research was undertaken during March and April 2017 to coincide with the tax filing season and took place in CVITP clinics in Ottawa, Canada. Researchers employed ethnographic methods (such as interviewing and participant observation) in their engagement with persons experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, social services agency staff, and CVITP volunteers, so as to elicit their experiences with tax filing and barriers to accessing tax benefits.

Ethnography is a qualitative research approach that entails collecting detailed, specific data about people and their everyday lives. It uses small-scale investigations to obtain rich, granular data that uncovers underlying meanings and patterns behind people’s words and actions. This methodology relies heavily on immersion in the field, participation, observation, and semi-structured interviewing so to allow interviewees to prioritize their issues. Ethnographic tools are not typically used in tax administrations which often focus instead on data analytics and behavioral economics techniques. This project is poised to help the CRA understand how the CVITP is helping ensure that homeless and housing-insecure Canadians are able to access the tax benefits they are entitled to.

In addition, this project has the potential to contribute to re-thinking the way the CRA delivers services to some of the most vulnerable Canadians by identifying the barriers these particular populations may face when filing taxes. The final report is expected for fall 2017.

Innovation Description

Innovation Development

Innovation Reflections

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Year: 2017
Level of government: National/Federal government


  • Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed

Innovation provided by:

Join our community:

It only takes a few minutes to complete the form and share your project.