Money on the table at tax time

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We keep wondering where the bailout is for hard-working Americans struggling to keep their heads above water. Well, there is some money available, and it's not a bailout -- it's money workers have already earned. It's called the Earned Income Tax Credit, and this year workers in North Carolina are eligible to receive even more of it than before.

Yet North Carolinians leave about $135 million in federal EITC dollars unclaimed every year, according to EITC Carolinas.

If you're a single person with no dependents and you earn less than $12,880 a year, you're eligible to get more than $400 back from the feds. A married couple, with two or more kids, earning less than $41,646 can receive nearly $5,000. (To find out if you qualify, use this calculator.)

Last year the North Carolina legislature approved a state EITC of 3.5 percent of the federal amount. That goes into effect this year -- not a moment too soon for those struggling to make ends meet.

The catch is, you have to file an income tax return to get the credit. About 80 percent of eligible North Carolinians do so, but that still leaves a lot of money on the table. There's a lot of free tax preparation help out there. Here's a list of sites in N.C. by county.

People who are eligible for the EITC are already paying more than their fair share of taxes. According to the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center, the bottom 20 percent of earners in the state pay more than 10 percent of their incomes on local and state taxes, while the top 1 percent of earners pay slightly more than 7 percent of their incomes. (These interactive graphs make sense of where the state's taxes come from, and who pays them.)

President Gerald Ford created the EITC in 1975 to help people stay off welfare and get out of poverty by making sure they weren't financially penalized for working. It's been expanded with bipartisan support many times since.

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