Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Transformation of a Tax-phobe

Elena Kaye-Schiess, AmeriCorps VISTA
with NeigborWorks Rural Initative

When I used to think about filing my taxes, I pictured myself standing at the edge of a cliff with my head turned away and my eyes closed while I dropped my stack of tax documents into the abyss. On the one hand, I considered the IRS a black abyss where as long as nothing came back out to bite me, I was golden. On the other hand, my understanding of what exactly I was sending was analogous to holding my breath and crossing my fingers.

Last year I first heard the terms EITC and VITA, or Earned Income Tax Credit and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites, through an a collaboration of NeighborWorks America's Rural Initiative and the NeighborWorks America homeownership team. The teams were working together on an open grant round to build the capacity of VITA sites operated by NeighborWorks organizations across the country. I learned about the impact NeighborWorks organizations have had in their communities through VITA sites that help residents correctly file their taxes and access the EITC, and how support from NeighborWorks America has enabled the organizations to efficiently and effectively reach more residents in their service areas.
VITA volunteers at Urban Edge help residents access their tax advantages

The EITC is one of the federal government’s largest anti-poverty programs, and each year it helps lift an estimated 6.6 million people above the poverty line. However, because workers move in and out of eligibility based on changes in their marital, parental and financial status, awareness is critical. About one-third of the EITC eligible population turns over each year, and this year millions of workers will qualify for the EITC for the first time (www.eitc.irs.gov).

Photo: Creative Commons, seniorliving.com
VITA sites bridge the awareness gap to help ensure those who qualify can claim the credit. The IRS works with national partners, community-based coalitions and thousands of local partners and governments, including many NeighborWorks organizations, to establish sites around the country. IRS-certified volunteers will provide free basic tax preparation and education about the EITC, as well as other credits individuals may qualify for. Benefits screening is also available to determine eligibility for services such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and LIHEAP (Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program).

Working on this project made me realize it was time to pull back the curtain on my tax aversion.  I became certified to volunteer at a VITA site operated by a NeighborWorks organization in my community. A year later I’ve not only become a VITA volunteer junkie, but I also incessantly hound my friends and family about how the EITC is a critical asset-building initiative, and how fantastic it is that there is probably a site in their community where they can sit down with a real live person who will prepare their taxes for free while explaining how the process works.

While volunteering with Urban Edge last year, I watched as many clients came in for tax prep, but when they learned about the financial education services Urban Edge also offered, such as first-time homebuyer education and credit counseling, they signed up for those as well. The CDC’s VITA role acted as a gateway for community members to get involved in the broader programs also available.

A friend recently told me about a new iPhone app where all you have to do is snap a picture of your W-2s and it will automatically populate your tax form for you. The old tax-phobic me would have probably thought this was a fantastic idea, but instead I had a much better recommendation to share: go visit a VITA site, and someone will help you prepare and file your taxes for free.

Want to learn more? Below is a partial list of NeighborWorks organizations which offer tax preparation services:

A full list of all VITA tax sites is available on the IRS website: http://irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/