When I joined United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey in the Fall, I was ecstatic to be able to support our local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program through our regional VITA provider and partner, Campaign for Working Families. For those of you who are not as familiar with VITA, it is a national program that assists households with income below $65,000 with local, and free tax preparation services.
Tax time is a huge opportunity for community members to increase their financial well-being. The JPMC Institute found in 2016, a tax refund represented the single largest cash infusion of the year for 40 percent of the 1.2 million families they researched; the average account balance grew by 42 percent on the day that the first tax refund was credited.
Not only does VITA help individuals and families maximize their tax returns so they keep more of their hard-earned money, but it also saves them real cash in the process. In 2020, the average cost to have taxes prepared by a paid service was $294 – and that was for a simple return. Add in any situation to make it more complex or toss in a tax credit or two, and the cost goes up. For those experiencing poverty, that $294+ savings is significant and can keep them from having to make tough choices, like falling behind on rent to feed their family.
I first volunteered for the VITA program in 2014 as an Intake Specialist in Washington, DC. I assisted a site in Northwest DC, by greeting community members, providing intake forms, and ensuring the community members had the appropriate identification and paperwork. I did the Monday night shift from 4:00 – 7:00pm and appreciated the community feel of the program and the genuine gratitude from the community members for coming and receiving high-quality service, free of charge. I later volunteered with the United Way of King County as a Tax Prep Specialist for three years, and for our local Philly program, powered by the Campaign for Working Families for one year.
Throughout my time with the program three things stood out to me:
- Volunteering for VITA is Meaningful: Being a small part of ensuring high-quality, people-centered tax services are being delivered around the city is a meaningful experience. You are able to see firsthand how you are supporting people in accessing the money that they deserve.
- VITA Volunteer Training is Comprehensive and Accessible: VITA training is awesome – its' thorough, well-paced, informative, and comprehensive. It has even helped me better understand doing my own taxes!
- VITA Volunteer Commitment is Realistic: Another thing I appreciate about VITA, is that it runs for four months out of the year. It’s a great way to shake up your regular routine. Some employers even support volunteer time during work hours.
Thanks to VITA volunteers, more than $443 million has been returned to the taxpayers in the region since the program’s start, helping build more sustainable futures for not just for these families themselves, but also for the communities where they live. As we head into the Holiday Season, and we are all looking for ways to give back and contribute to the health and wellbeing of our community. I would encourage you to consider joining the Campaign for Working Families as a volunteer for the 2022 Tax Season.
You can read more about the program here: Tax Prep Volunteers Help Break the Cycle of Poverty – Campaign for Working Families Inc. (cwfphilly.org) Campaign for Working Families is supporting volunteers with online training through January. Get started today!
This is the first of a five-part series running December 2021– April 2022 highlighting VITA and accessing tax credits as a key strategy under United Way’s Financial Empowerment Pillar.