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TurboTax maker puts a pink spin on exploitative financial products

Tax preparation behemoth Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, recently unveiled a new campaign attempting to brand itself as a feminist company.
Intuit Products Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Intuit Turbotax at store in New York on Jan. 24, 2024.Eilon Paz / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Tax preparation behemoth Intuit (maker of TurboTax) recently unveiled a new campaign branding itself as a feminist company. “When it comes to the complexities of the tax code, women encounter distinct challenges,” reads a post on the company’s official blog, “and here at Intuit, we’re committed to empowering prosperity for every single person—especially the inspiring women who play an integral role in driving our collective success.”

The campaign is reminiscent of the old Virginia Slims ads, hawking sexy-seeming cigarettes to women under the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby.” No, using TurboTax won’t give you cancer. But like Virginia Slims, Intuit is using feminism as distraction — in this case, from the millions they have long skimmed from tax filers’ wallets. And this year, there may be more money at stake than ever.

Each year, Americans pay private companies like Intuit billions of dollars to help prepare their taxes. When the George W. Bush administration suggested a free online way for Americans to file their taxes, the tax prep industry negotiated a compromise. Under the Free File program, Americans under a certain income threshold can use private companies’ services to file for free.

But while roughly 70 percent of taxpayers are eligible to file for free, just a scant 3 percent do. As ProPublica reported in 2019, Intuit deliberately misdirected low-income taxpayers to paid products when they were eligible for the free versions that Intuit told the IRS they would provide. Intuit finally stopped juicing its website to make people pay for what they should have gotten for free only when a coalition of state attorneys general settled with the company, which was forced to pay $141 million to consumers.

As the IRS clamped down on attempts to guide users toward paying, Intuit (and rival H&R Block) left the Free File program. But the company continues to devote lobbying and PR dollars to prevent women and everyone else from getting this service for free from the government. This year, the IRS is piloting a free Direct File program in 12 states — a much bigger threat to tax prep companies’ bottom lines. According to Open Secrets, Intuit spent $3.78 million in 2023 on lobbying, hiring over 100 lobbyists to, among other priorities, pressure lawmakers to block Direct File.

So forgive us if Intuit’s sudden posing as a women’s rights warrior is unpersuasive. There are proven ways to create a tax code that works for women and Intuit is not the one we should trust to describe them. We need a code that raises adequate revenue to lessen the elder care and child care burdens that fall mostly on women. That would include providing enough funding to make sure that teachers, nurses, and care providers of all kinds, who are disproportionately female, can be better compensated for their hard work. And it would include more targeted refundable tax credits, including Child Tax Credits and Earned Income Tax Credits. Those programs particularly assist parents raising kids alone, a majority of whom are — you guessed it — women.

Accomplishing these goals means raising that revenue from the wealthiest people and corporations — including Intuit. The company used tax breaks to cut its own federal tax bill in 2022 to $253 million. That’s a 10.5 percent effective tax rate, half the current 21 percent statutory rate — saving them hundreds of millions of dollars.

Corporate underpayment is largely a windfall for men, as a glass ceiling and other factors still keep women at a paltry 11.8 percent of corporate CEOs. Since Donald Trump slashed the corporate tax rate, the largest, most profitable corporations pay a small and shrinking share of their profits in taxes. The last time corporate taxes were this low as a share of profits, famously anti-tax Ronald Reagan cooperated with Democrats to restore the corporate share of taxes paid. Doing so again would be a pro-woman policy.

The same is true of making the wealthiest pay their fair share. Of the 813 billionaires in the U.S. just 13.5 percent are women. And higher top income tax brackets at the federal and state level would generate more from men, who earn more than women on average and hold the lion’s share of the highest paying jobs.

As Intuit’s actions go, running you-go-girl ads in tax publications and writing anodyne blog posts calling for pay equity are relatively harmless. But if TurboTax really wanted to help female taxpayers, they should never have hawked paid services to the very people they’d promised to provide free preparation to.  And they should stop lobbying to prevent free filing. TurboTax has hurt a lot of women, and Intuit is not a credible voice on how to create a tax code that works for us.