VITA: Building Financial Stability One Tax Return at a Time
Every year in Washington State, low-and-middle income individuals and families struggle to pay the bills and keep food on the table. Tax time can make an unstable situation even worse with low-income Washingtonians being disproportionately impacted by the most regressive tax system in the nation coupled with costly tax preparation fees, which are often upwards of $300.
But every tax season, across the country, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers people a free alternative to more costly tax preparation services. VITA free tax preparation services are offered by local IRS-certified volunteers and are closely monitored by the agency, giving them a far lower error rate than many self – and paid-tax preparation services.
United Way of King County has proudly operated our local VITA program, referred to as the Free Tax Preparation Campaign, for over thirteen years. Starting as only a few tax site locations, the program has expanded to be county-wide with 24 locations and leverages the skills and talents of over 900 multi-lingual, trained, and IRS-certified volunteers. In 2015, the Free Tax Preparation Campaign prepared 19,900 tax returns, securing $27 million in refunds to the community. This year the Campaign is aiming to serve even more low-and-middle income households than ever before.
The sites not only provide free tax preparation services, but they help raise awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to ensure eligible workers receive the credit. The EITC delivers an average of $2,000 in additional refunds back into the pockets of low-income working taxpayers. In fact, EITC is so effective at helping lift people out of poverty; it is largely considered the most successful anti-poverty program in the country. Despite being a powerful anti-poverty tool, the EITC is underutilized with 1 in 5 eligible taxpayers not claiming the credit.
But VITA and United Way’s Free Tax Preparation Campaign aim to increase accessibility of EITC and other financially stabilizing benefits, like Basic Food and utility assistance, by partnering with local agencies to provide free tax prep services in spaces that are comfortable and well-known within the community such as libraries, community centers, and Goodwill locations.
Since January, the Free Tax Preparation Campaign has prepared more than 13,000 returns, representing $18 million in refunds, with approximately $6 million coming directly from the EITC. Tax site locations will offer services through April 21st and will serve thousands more taxpayers before the season is over.
In honor of VITA Awareness Day, spread the word about this incredible free service and connect even more low-and-middle income families and individuals to these financially stabilizing resources. To find your nearest tax site and what to bring, visit www.uwkc.org/taxhelp. Free tax prep is also available online for households making less than $62K at www.myfreetaxes.com.