Volunteer Income Tax Assistance
The IRS asked United Way of Southern Cameron County for a meeting in 2003. Their request was for us to help local people access the Earned Income Tax Credit—they estimated that millions of dollars were left on the table every year in our community by people who didn’t file taxes and claim the credit. They asked us to form a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance initiative—a way for people below certain income thresholds to have their taxes prepared and e-filed for free by IRS-certified volunteers.
At the time there was a small VITA effort.
· 4 volunteers· 312 returns
· $123,540 in EITC returned for 84 families
The IRS thought United Way of Southern Cameron County could create partnerships for a greater impact and bring more volunteers to the effort, and we agreed to try. Since forming the VITA partnership in 2004, things have changed. We have gone from
· From 4 volunteers to 279 volunteers (211 trained and IRS certified tax preparers!)
· From 312 returns filed to 4,624 returns filed in 2017
· From $123,540 in EITC to $4.8 million in 2017
· Total refunds, EITC and child tax credits in 2017 were $9.8 million—imagine the economic impact on families in Cameron County.
The change we’re proudest of, though, is our partnership with school districts. Last year, every comprehensive high school in BISD as well as Los Fresnos High School, San Benito High School, and La Feria High School opened a VITA site on campus. This year, Willacy County's Lyford High School has opened a site, too.
Why does this matter?
· The students who volunteer as tax preparers gain a postsecondary credential and valuable work experience, but what they tell us is the best thing of all is the experience of preparing taxes for adults who enter the site looking a little worried that a student is going to file their return and leave thinking of that student as a skilled professional. Students build confidence, learn soft skills, and have the ultimate reward of helping families become more financially stable.
· The people of our community benefit. VITA is for families with an income of $54,000 or less. Think about the percentage of families in southern Cameron County who are eligible for free income tax preparation—and VITA volunteers are keeping people out of the clutches of the “rapid refund” companies. 100% of the money goes into the pockets of hard working families, and they don’t pay a dime for the service.