By Nick Miller, CEDAM AmeriCorps member at Capital Area United Way
For the past year I’ve been a CEDAM AmeriCorps member serving at Capital Area United Way (CAUW), assisting with their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Being able to help in the field of financial stability was something that appealed to me, though it was not an area in which I had much experience. Throughout my time in college, I volunteered with a number of groups and discovered a passion for nonprofit work and nonprofit management. When I heard about getting a chance to serve through AmeriCorps, it was a natural choice.
Early in my service term, I started looking at the positive impact of the VITA program, and the negative impact paid tax preparers can have on low-income individuals and families. We know that one in five eligible taxpayers fail to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), leaving billions of dollars on the table by potential recipients, with billions more siphoned off by paid tax preparers through refund anticipation loans, inordinate tax preparation fees, and other mechanisms. This knowledge allowed me to anchor my passion and focus on helping as much as I could. But I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to help at all.
Coming out of school with a degree in public policy—where the closest I got to dealing with taxes was talking about the use of taxes in economics—I never imagined I would be preparing other people’s taxes as well as my own. In high school and college, when I had filed a return it had been through a family friend. While I knew what a W-2 was, I had little idea what a 1040, a 1098-T, or a 1099-Misc was. But I dove in head first, participating in the training CAUW provided our volunteers, going through practice examples, and working closely with my supervisor to gain a basic competence before the tax season. The experience I gained helping—and being helped by—volunteers was immensely beneficial, helping me to quickly build on that basic competence. I learned some of the nuances involved in individual tax preparation, tips and tricks to help along the process, and how to listen for opportunities to better clients’ financial situation by providing knowledge at the right moment.
This past year our 12 sites in the Capital Area helped clients receive more than $160,000 of Home Heating credits, $750,000 of Earned Income credits, and $1.25 million Homestead Property tax credits. These invaluable credits will allow our clients to, among other things, pay their heating bills and cover household expenses, save for an emergency, and stay in their homes when facing property tax or mortgage payment delinquency. Being able to work with some of the clients who benefitted from these credits was extremely rewarding, especially when they were facing the loss of their home and we were able to provide them with multiple years’ worth of credits. Because of this, the difference just one person can make by just several hours of volunteering per week is immense. And with VITA only reaching roughly 5% of the eligible population according to IRS estimates, the need is equally large. If you are considering or think you’d be interested in volunteering, I strongly urge you to do so.
I look forward to continuing my work with Capital Area United Way as a community investment associate, expanding our role of providing invaluable assistance to those who need it most. I urge anyone who is considering volunteering or would be a good fit for volunteering to do so. Learn how to get involved.