Volunteer Income Tax Assistance: Helping People Fulfill Their Civic Duties — For Free

Each year, millions of hard-working Americans set out to engage in the ritual of fulfilling their civic obligation by completing and filing a tax return. This can be an easy task — as simple as going online and completing the process themselves, or passing the necessary documents along to an accountant or enrolled agent. For many of the 70% of Americans whose income falls below $64,000, which qualifies them to file their taxes for free, it may not be as easy as you may think. Couple the challenges of filing your own taxes with an inherent fear of getting something wrong, prompting the dreaded “letter from the IRS,” or with the prevalence of identity theft during tax season, and the road to fulfilling one’s civic obligation becomes a little bit harder.

Enter VITA. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs are a widespread but under-utilized community resource to help low- to moderate-income households overcome the challenges of filing a tax return.

VITA programs provide free, high-quality and accurate (94%) return preparation services, and ensure that taxpayers claim all the credits they are entitled to (like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit). In addition, VITA programs are known for working hard to connect taxpayers with other services that help them to build or strengthen their financial future for themselves and their families.

So why does such a gem of a program remain a “diamond in the rough”? There are several reasons why you may not be familiar with your local VITA program.

The first is that it could be that you know them, but just by another name.

One of the challenges for VITA programs receiving widespread recognition is that each program is locally and independently owned and operated (not franchised like McDonald’s). The VITA program is by no means a new kid on the block. It’s been around since the 1970s. It first began when the IRS took up the cause of taxpayer education. A part of that charge was to encourage IRS employees to help Americans file their taxes annually by preparing them for free. As the years passed, with shrinking budgets and staff, the IRS decided to delegate the tax preparation portion of their work to community organizations. In the early 2000s, community organizations took up the mantle, viewing the VITA program as an opportunity to help the low-income residents, particularly those who were eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, save a few dollars by preparing their taxes for free. Some VITA coalitions started out by branding their work as something other than VITA, and others have evolved over the years, because let’s face it — VITA is an acronym that must be explained to those for whom the concept is foreign. Besides that, as coalitions have evolved into providing other financial capability services, the term “VITA” just doesn’t encapsulate all of the great work they’re doing.

Another reason why you may not be familiar with the local VITA program? Lack of funding.

When the IRS enlisted the support of community organizations to provide this service, they also provided some funding in the early years. The funding was approved by Congress, but it’s not a lot. For several years, the IRS provided $12 million in grant funding for programs that do this work. Last year, Congress approved a $3 million increase to raise the grant funding to $15 million. This is a little better, but there are a couple of catches. For every dollar in grant funding, a local program must provide a match. And there are about 5,000 VITA sites across the country. Not every VITA program, and not every VITA site, receives federal funding — but if they did, the funding would equate to around $3,000 per site. That’s not a lot of funding for a very intense, high-touch, high-quality program. So, at a rate of $3,000 per site, after staff time to coordinate the program, recruit and train volunteers, cover the cost of equipment and supplies, and more, there’s not a lot left for advertising.

Finally, the key to a VITA program’s success is its volunteers.

It is, after all, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the program. VITA volunteers are a very special and unique group of individuals who generously give of themselves, spending countless hours training, completing certification tests and volunteering to provide a service to the community. These volunteers provide services for which other tax preparers, with less training and no required certification, charge a national average of $273. This is a special group indeed, and one that is often hard to find, grow and retain.

VITA programs are constantly challenged with finding the right volunteers with the dedication, commitment and heart for the work. VITA volunteers who “get it” understand that the service they provide to a small percentage of the 70% of Americans who qualify to file their taxes for free means much more than just the $273 the taxpayer saves. To a low-income family, $273 could mean two or three weeks of groceries, a car payment, the month’s utility bill or $273 to start or build an emergency savings account. It also means the assurance that their taxes were prepared correctly, and in many instances, it means they can find out more about or get connected to programs that will help to build or strengthen their financial future for the long run.

The VITA program is an essential part of the American experience of tax time. While taxes are very personal, filing a return is an essential part of fulfilling your civic obligation as an American citizen. But for many who qualify to file for free, there are a lot of resources available to help. For those who are “tech-savvy” or DIYers, there are online resources available through the IRS Free File program. But for those who may not be as tech savvy or who lack the confidence that they can prepare a complete and accurate return for themselves, there’s VITA.

March 15, 2017, is VITA Awareness Day. Will You Help Make #VITAWork for More Taxpayers?

As we make our way to Tax Day (April 18 this year), there are two things you can do to help us raise awareness about, and increase funding for the VITA program.

First, when you check in with friends, adult children, relatives, at the barber shop or even at the grocery store, ask the simple question: “Have you filed your taxes yet?” If the answer is “No,” refer them to the nearest VITA site (irs.gov has a list). If the answer is “Yes,” ask if they paid to have their taxes prepared. If they did, send them to the nearest VITA site for next year. If they filed for free, commend them for a job well done.

Second, check out our VITA Awareness Day toolkit to use the shareable images, tweet your members of Congress and browse data for your state so you can learn more and educate others about the importance of VITA. While you’re at it, show your support for increased funding for the program (to $30 million annually).

Help us bring the diamond out of the rough.