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VITA: More Than Just Taxes

Mr. K is homeless and living in the backroom of a Woodland Avenue business. He was referred to Southwest Community Development Corporation (Southwest CDC) because he didn't have an ID and needed money to get a duplicate driver's license. We gave him the $32.50 he needed for PennDOT, and he received his license. Mr. K had not received any stimulus money in 2020 or 2021 because he had not filed his taxes. So Southwest CDC referred Mr. K to African Culture Alliance of North America (ACANA) to get his taxes done. After he filed his taxes, ACANA told Mr. K that he would be receiving almost $4,000 in stimulus funds. The stimulus refund will help him get back on his feet. Southwest CDC is also giving him a place to sleep while they help remove other barriers to Mr. K achieving financial wellness.

 

We have about 3 weeks left of tax season. This time of year, we often highlight the number of refunds received or taxes filed by our VITA partners. But today, I wanted to take a moment to highlight all the work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that community members are getting access to the services and money that they are owed.

Training & Operations: Most of us think tax season starts in January, but for our VITA partners, the work is year-round. They secure venues, train volunteers, and work extremely hard to refine and improve program strategy. Aided by the support of United Way, our partners ebb and flow with demand over the course of each year to ensure that, come tax season, everything is in place to make the VITA program successful.

Marketing and Outreach: There are so many for-profit companies like H&R Block marketing for people’s attention and money. United Way and our partners are constantly thinking of new ideas and strategies to ensure the message about our VITA programs cuts through the noise and reaches the right people. It’s a constant struggle to stay relevant, but we’re putting in the work to combat inequitable access to free programs like VITA by investing our energies into grassroots marketing and outreach.

Removing Barriers to Accessing Tax Refunds: Proper identification, identity theft, and tax-identification numbers can all be barriers for people trying to access their refunds or even stimulus money. Our partners work on the ground, taking the time to identify the barriers people are facing and tackling them head-on. This becomes even more important as new policies are made, like the Advanced CTC and stimulus payments from COVID-19.

Emotional Support and a Source of Trusted Information: Due to challenges at the IRS, everyone is facing longer wait times than usual. Folks are anxious. Our partners provide support and guidance during times of stress and uncertainty. This will become even more important as policy shifts at the federal level.

These tasks and activities above are often overlooked when we think about ensuring equitable and inclusive delivery of services. But we know from our partners and our community members that without these, so many more people would have no choice but to pay for tax services or never receive the money they are owed.

We need more stories like Mr. K’s. It’s incredible how only $32.50 stood in the way of him getting access to $4,000. That is why the work of our partners is so important. They walk alongside people and make sure they have access to everything available to them to help fit their immediate, and eventually, long-term financial needs.

As we wind down the 2022 tax-filing season, VITA is already thinking about fundraising for the next year. At United Way, our Financial Empowerment pillar works to provide general support, resources, and stability to our community partners. It’s critical that our partners have the space to be strategic, thoughtful, and effective as they prepare for the next year.

Your support makes our work possible. Consider giving a gift today to support programs like VITA. Special thanks to our partners from the No One Left Behind Coalition for sharing Mr. K’s story with us.

Note: This is the fourth of a five-part series running from December 2021 to April 2022 highlighting VITA and accessing tax credits as a key strategy under United Way’s Financial Empowerment Pillar.