IRS refund delays put school plans at risk

The time: 12:39 a.m. The place: My cluttered 635 square-foot apartment a fart and armpit noise away from Drake University. I’m hunched over my elegantly aging laptop with Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitful Me” blasting in my eardrums at top volume and my Oska Tigers ballcap screwed on my bald head.

My body shakes with anxiety. It’s been that kind of day. Or yesterday was that kind of day. These wee, small hours of the morning posts are tricky bastards when it comes to the timing of things.

I checked my credit union balance this afternoon. I needed to get some allergy pills.

I wanted to save back a few bills for when my buddy, Memphis Paul, hits town next week. We don’t close the bars anymore, but I was thinking of a nice trip to the Amana and the Ox Yoke Inn restaurant with a stop in Iowa City at Prairie Lights Books and Cafe.

To my surprise, my online tax preparer had deducted about $240 from my account, leaving me in the all-too familiar position of being flat-ass broke.

Bad balance juju

What fuckery was this?

I indeed used the company’s software to prepare and file my taxes. But they were to take the money out of my refund, not my bank account.

My refund was big enough to cover the prep fees and take care of a couple months’ worth of rent with change left over.

Said refund has yet to arrive in my account. Apparently, the previous president of the United States was not fond of the IRS, particularly their auditors, and gutted the staffing for the agency.

The pandemic forced federal employees out of their enclaves and taxes filed by paper form piled up for the 2019 tax year and the beginning of the 2020 filing season.

IRS hell

My refund has been tied up in IRS hell since my return was filed and accepted on April 15. Normally it takes 21 days to process. We are at 68 days and counting.

I’ve tried to get the IRS on the phone. This usually meant hours on hold with a recording bleating the woes of the understaffed agency. A few times I got to a point where even the recording gave up on the charade and said, “Call back tomorrow or send us an email.”

Only the federal government can stick its middle finger so squarely in your eye without fear of reprisal.

I tried to make my elected officials work for me, which on face value seems as foolhardy as chewing tinfoil to improve your car radio reception.

The futility of representative democracy

Calling your elected representative: The last refuge of the desperate.

I dialed up the offices of Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and Rep. Cindy Axne.

Ernst’s office didn’t return the call. Maybe she takes personally all those columns where I called her “Dollar Store Sarah Palin.” That’s fair. Ernst seems exactly the kind of person who is only interested in helping the people who scratch her back.

Grassley’s office called and sent me a privacy form to fill out. I did so. I’ve not yet heard back from his people.

Axne’s office emailed me the form. I sent it back the same way. The next day someone called back and said they would assign it to a caseworker who deals with IRS problems.

They warned me this is an ongoing problem and they’ve dealt with a lot of calls about it. I’m supposed to hear something back this Friday.

Companies inside of companies

So, back to the online tax preparer, whom I’ve done business with since 2001. I paid the company the extra dough for 24-7 support because if there was a year shit was going to go sideways on my taxes, it would be the year I lost two jobs and lived off unemployment.

I dialed the tax prep company up and got a man on the phone within minutes.

The reason they hit my bank account: It’s the fine print, the man said. In the fine print, I agreed to pay the online tax preparer even if my refund never shows up.

We did send you three emails, the man said.

I searched my mail. I found nothing.

He read my email address to me. It was an address I hadn’t used for years and it isn’t the one I log into the tax prep site with.

Ah, well there was the rub, the tax prep man said. I changed my email with that part of the company, but there’s this other company that handles the money transaction side of things.

That part of the company sent emails to an address I no longer use warning me of the pending transaction. If I had replied to one of those messages, they would have extended my grace period.

But I don’t check that email. So, I’m out that cash. It’s legit. But it still sucks.

Hopeless against the merciless

I don’t know what a citizen is supposed to do. You can’t fight the IRS. You can’t get them on the phone. The government works about as well as going uphill in roller skates in an ice storm.
I’m unemployed. I need that money, which the law says is my money and should be returned to me.

This wouldn’t hit so hard if Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds hadn’t cut off the pandemic assistance unemployment, which tacked an extra $300 to unemployment insurance.

Reynolds seems primarily concerned that restaurant servers get back to work for substandard wages and earn their tips rather than make a living wage.

I’ll remind you that the $300 unemployment booster came from federal money and didn’t take a cent from Reynold’s budget. And the money ended in September anyway.

If Disney keeps up with this “Cruella” franchise, they might consider Reynolds for the lead role.

Job market is great for servers

Some jerk already has their pity “Get a job!” response keyed up. Yeah. I’m trying.

Funny thing about that, though. I had a job for 23 years. I worked at different shops. But I did well until one day I made too much money for the greedy Wall Street hustlers and the put me on the bricks.

By then, I hated my job and what it had become so much, it was almost a relief to be cut loose from the toxic trade.

What I quickly learned is the skill set I have may have value to other careers, but I have zero skill in translating what I can do to what people need done. I’ve paid companies to help me with it.

The closest I got was a short engagement with a TV station that was an absolute disaster because I was totally out of my element.

Trying to be a better person

But what I’m really trying to do is get a new career. I’m studying to be a teacher, to give back to the institutions that gave so much to me and maybe pass along what I’ve learned.

I’m am trying to be a better person. I’m trying to grow out of this miserable experience. And, yeah, I wanted to go for a nice meal with my buddy whom I haven’t seen in three years.

The time is 1:43 a.m. Zevon’s “Mr. Bad Example” blasts. Boy, that man knew how to sling a savage lyric.

I get it. This is America. There are winners and losers. And if you’re a loser, it’s your fault. Nobody gives a shit about the runners-up let alone the last guy to cross the line. And if you don’t make it? Hey, you might as well not exist.

Reminds me of another Zevon tune: “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”

Somehow, I got stuck between a rock and a hard place

And I’m down on my luck

I’m down on my luck.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. 
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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds earns another gold star for cruelty

“Bad? Son, the fan didn’t just get hit this time, it got smothered!” — G.I. Joe No. 1, 1982

Gov. Kim Reynolds is an inspiration.
This week she inspired me to have a panic attack.

Reynolds announced Iowa would no longer participate in the federal pandemic assistance program. That program paid unemployed people $300 a week in addition to their state benefits. The money came from the feds rather than the state budget. The program was set to end in September.

Why Reynolds wanted to get out of a program that helped some of her vulnerable citizens that came at no cost to her is beyond me.

Maybe she wanted another gold star for cruelest move by a chief executive.

But that’s the way it is with Reynolds. She’s the governor.

If you don’t like it, it’s your problem, not hers.

She’s right. Losing $300 a week of income was, in fact, my problem.

I was using that money to help get through graduate school at Drake University. I plan to become a journalism and language arts teacher.

If all goes well, and I have no reason to expect that it will, I’ll be signing a contract with a metro district by this time next year and beginning the second half of my working life as a teacher.

Reynolds said she quit the pandemic assistance program because the state had more job openings than unemployed people. People were using the money to stay home instead of going back to work.

That’s a fun fantasy based on a dangerous fallacy.

Reynolds seems to believe all jobs are the same.

They’re not.

There are a lot of fast food restaurants around town offering $14, $15 and even $16 per hour for help. Maybe I could get one of those jobs.

Except I can’t. I have arthritis in my knees and back. I can’t stand for an 8-hour shift. I’d be fired by the end of the second day if I lasted that long.

Arthritis, obesity, depression and anxiety are all health issues. I need physical therapy and medication.

I bought the cheapest insurance available off the exchange. It’s not really health insurance as much as it is catastrophe insurance. If I have a heart attack or get hit by a car, I’ll be able to go to the hospital.

But in terms of wellness, it’s garbage.

But, as our inspiring governor would say, citizens’ health barriers to employment are their problem.

I don’t understand politics. I never have. I had a great political science professor as an undergrad at Drake, Dennis Goldford.

He said politics was “the only process we have, peacefully, for enabling us to live together with people with whom we have significant differences.”

We’re not seeing a lot of this art of compromise anymore.

We’re seeing “you’re with us or against us” mentality stoked by a mass media that targets its messages at partisan purists and leaves the rest of the country behind.

This leads to politics without compromise, which means no matter who gets elected, a lot of people are screwed.

I think that’s how someone like Reynolds gets elected governor. She doesn’t compromise. If it’s not a problem for her, her party or her donors, then it’s not a problem.

The rest of us are on our own. We, as Iowans and Americans, have become hardened in our hearts to others. We want what’s ours. Everyone else can fend for themselves. Anyone who struggles is a loser. It’s not my problem, pal, it’s yours.

That’s Reynolds’ thinking. That’s a big swath of Iowa and American thinking. Never compromise.

Fine.

The income hit hurts.

I’ll survive.

Why?

I’ve got a lot of help. I’ve got family. I’ve got friends.

I’ve got the federal government happy to loan me money to go to graduate school.

I will probably die in student loan debt.

I don’t care.

Because I am going to be a teacher. I think I’ll be a good teacher, maybe even a great one. Maybe I’ll be a better teacher than I was a journalist.

I don’t know.

But I have been fighting for survival since I became a ward of the state on my first moment out of the womb.

I got adopted.

I lost my folks before I was 14.

I lived with another family and thrived.

I struggled with mental health. I spent myself into bankruptcy and considered suicide many times.

I got therapy and medicine.

I worked in newspapers.

Newspapers kicked me out.

And in the dead middle of my life, I’m learning a whole new trade and getting by each week by the skin of my teeth.

Hit me, life.

Beat me to my knees, bad luck.

Ignore me with your vast indifference, Gov. Reynolds.

I stand. I keep moving forward with the tenacity of a cockroach.

I am resilient.

I will overcome my problems.

And one day, when I see someone struggling that I can help, I’m going to remember the legacy of Reynolds and do the opposite:

I’ll help.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. 
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Huzzah! Identity theft debacle with Iowa Workforce Development solved … Why I feel queasy about it

Great news. I’m me again. I wasn’t me for about three weeks, but now, I’m officially me again.

Someone stole my identity. Most of the time, I would let that kind of thing go. I’m not doing a great job with this identity. Maybe someone else should have a go.

My levity in the face of this adversity faded when it cost me money.

The scofflaw attempted to claim my unemployment benefits. This proved a particular problem since I am unemployed and need those benefits to keep the lights on at Camp Daniel.

Iowa Workforce Development, which manages the state’s unemployment benefits, spotted the fraud.

They got me to upload copies of my driver’s license and Social Security card. We cleared up the discrepancies in my account.

But the unemployment office employees told me it might take a month or more for the fraud case to resolve.

This put me on red alert. The utility companies, insurance agencies and property managers tend to want to be paid on time.

Monday, a good friend and political operator, called to check on me.

I told him of my plight. He asked if it would be all right to make a call on my behalf.

Now, I was a journalist for a long time and I felt queasy about trying to jump the line with the old “who you know, not what you know” move.

I needed to get things back on track. And I’m not a journalist anymore — by decision of the current journalism warehouse gatekeepers.

So I gave the green light.

The person he called, also an old friend, forwarded the case to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

Within 2 hours, I got a call from the fraud investigator who was working my case.

She had just received my file, she said. After 10 minutes of verifying my information, she removed the fraud hold on my account.

My missing checks deposited into my account Friday.

Maybe all of that is coincidence.

Maybe the fraud investigator just happened to receive my case after a couple of my friends who know what buttons to push in state government pushed those buttons.

That is possible. I’m not a gambler, and I can’t guess the odds of coincidence. I want it to be true that I didn’t use influence to get back on track.

Then again, I really needed to get back on track. I’m deeply grateful to both my friends and the fraud investigator who resolved my issue.

What gnaws at me is the people whose stories are in my inbox, people who like me are on “fraud hold” and don’t have years worth of friendships and connections that maybe speed up serendipity.

One woman wrote she hadn’t seen a check in six weeks — and she was getting the minimum $203 plus the additional $300 from the federal stimulus.

What about the disabled veteran on fraud hold in KCCI-TV’s Scott Carpenter’s story from April 19? Has someone unlocked the system for him?

How many people are struggling with this “fraud hold” in silence?

I got mine. I should be satisfied. That’s how we behave in America. We look out for No. 1 and everybody else is on their own.

I don’t believe that. I don’t want to live that way. But I’m not a journalist anymore. I’m not paid to ask tough questions and make open records requests or pressure public officials for specific details and data anymore.

No, I’ve got just enough of a conscious left to feel guilty that I beat the system and just enough cynicism to realize the system is a game, but the constituents aren’t the players — they’re the pawns.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
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