At 45, the VITA Program Offers So Much More Than Just Tax Assistance
As the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program approaches its 45th anniversary, it continues to perform as one of the most effective and efficient federal programs in the country. But for millions of Americans, VITA stands for so much more.
With 12,000 sites operating in every state and the District of Columbia, VITA programs offer a range of tax assistance services that support America's low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities.
To achieve this mission, leadership is critical. The Directors and Program Managers of each VITA program are tasked with serving as many applicable tax filers as possible and ensuring exceptional quality, while grappling and strategizing with limited financial resources.
Marshall Hunt, the Director of Tax Policy & Advocacy at Accounting Aid Society in Detroit, Michigan has spent the past 34 years working on tax assistance programs and now ensures that his VITA program has the greatest possible impact on the communities he serves.
Like many VITA programs, tax preparation is only the tip of the iceberg, as many sites offer additional support services as they see the need arise in their communities.
"Accounting Aid has a Small Business Services Program that offers tax education, consultation and tax preparation to get small business owners on the right track with their taxes," Marshall explained. He added excitedly, "We have a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic that provides valuable services to taxpayers with controversies with the IRS. And the clinic also offers an ESL Education and Outreach program that provides tax education and outreach for taxpayers who speak English as a second language."
Though each VITA program has a varied range of service offerings, the goal remains the same: helping LMI families file their tax returns for free to enable them to receive the maximum refund and engage in positive asset-building behavior.
Robin McKinney, the Director of the Maryland CASH program, began as a volunteer with the Annie E. Casey Foundation nearly 15 years ago and has been dedicated to advancing the volunteer tax assistance field ever since.
"I was very active in Baltimore CASH as a coalition partner and ended up starting Maryland CASH in 2007 to help bring VITA state-wide," Robin said.
Robin has steadily worked to develop strategies that bring additional support services to residents across the state in order to help them reach financial stability.
"Maryland CASH works with a network of partners in 15 counties, which offer a variety of services. There are several that offer year-round tax prep, ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) preparation, financial coaching, public benefit screening and access to savings products," she said.
VITA programs, such as Maryland CASH, have been offering a mix of free tax preparation as well as asset building services to LMI individuals and families since 1971.
Today, it has expanded to process 3.6 million returns, which generated $3.9 billion in federal income tax returns for local communities in 2014.
Francesca Jean Baptiste, Senior Program Manager for Maryland CASH, has consistently evaluated the program to ensure that their services are helping clients overcome their financial challenges.
"We offer financial education classes on a variety of financial topics ranging from first-time home ownership to how to start a small business through our online platform," Francesca said. "We also have a financial coaching program that uses technology to assist people with working towards their financial goals."
Sara Johnson, the Campaign Director for Baltimore CASH, volunteered at an East Baltimore tax site in 2007 and became convinced that VITA tax prep was essential work that demanded her abilities and commitment.
"One of the programs I was managing was a resident leadership and engagement program, and I saw firsthand how residents were coping with financial insecurity in their community," Sara recalls. "It was there that I learned in a tangible way the importance of VITA services, asset building and the EITC."
During the 2014 tax filing season, VITA and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program prepared returns for nearly 734,000 households claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and more than 409,000 households claiming the Child Tax Credit (CTC), while also helping filers claim more than $82 million in educational tax credits.
With 96,000 volunteers committed to providing these services, Robin believes VITA helps address the long-term financial needs of residents in the community.
"I can't tell you how many times someone said to me 'you are the first person to explain my tax return to me,'" said Robin. "It is so important that people understand why they're getting a refund or why they owe. It helps them plan throughout the year and to be able to better compare their return from one year to the next."
But VITA doesn't just help LMI filers get on a firm financial footing; it helps the IRS, too. With a 95.6 percent e-file rate, VITA saves the IRS millions in additional costs annually by filing the majority of returns electronically.
Having fully utilized an annual $12,000,000 appropriation from Congress, the VITA program is now functioning at capacity – limiting the number of additional tax payers that can be helped during the height of tax filing season. All it takes is one snow storm or one day of missed service to put lower income tax filers in a precarious position with limited options.
"Capacity is an issue that we are always dealing with," Francesca said. "Many of our programs are at capacity and have very little room to grow without the addition of new resources."
VITA presently serves over three million tax filers annually, but the IRS estimates that there are approximately 19 million individuals and families who would utilize the service if it was more readily available. That is why Prosperity Now and the Tax Opportunity Network are advocating for a $6 million increase to VITA for 2016.
Access to these services can make all the difference to a family counting on their tax returns to help them stabilize themselves financially and plan for the expenses ahead.
"It helps them to plan throughout the year and to be able to better compare their return from one year to the next," Robin explained. "VITA provides a service beyond just the transaction of tax preparation. We provide education and build confidence in taxpayers that pays dividends for years to come."