A helping hand at tax time

United Way of Greater St. Louis Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program has been working to provide those in need with free tax preparation services 

By Charlotte Beard

For over 15 years, United Way of Greater St. Louis has been working with community partners to provide local families and individuals free tax preparation services through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. The program helps those who qualify and earn an annual income under the $55,000 threshold. 

United Way’s tax coalition partners include Metropolitan St. Louis Community Tax Coalition, Gateway EITC Community Coalition, National Association of Black Accountants, and St. Louis Tax Assistance Program. In 2018, 877 volunteers worked through the coalitions to provide services which is estimated to have helped households save $5 million in tax preparation services. This effort also resulted in more than 18,600 tax return filings which helped low and middle-income families receive close to $18 million combined in refunds.

Debbie Irwin, Community Economic Development Director for United Way of Greater St. Louis said, “United Way first got involved with the tax preparation program in 2003. At that time, we worked with volunteers to help create the Gateway EITC Community Coalition and help them get off the ground. We began reaching out to other coalitions that were doing tax preparation in the area and began providing additional funding.”

Eric Schneider, Executive Director for Gateway EITC Community Coalition shared, “We (prepared) 87,000 federal returns over that time period bringing back $98 million to the community. We’ve seen significant growth; the need is always there. We can grow more if we get more volunteers.”

Irwin added that grants help offset the free tax preparation costs. The services highly rely on volunteers to help prepare taxes. As partners can recruit volunteers, they are able to grow and increase the number of services offered. 

Schneider shared, “We can always use more volunteers whether it’s a greeter, preparer, or reviewer. We’d love to get more people involved in this community service.”

People who are interested in volunteering their time to this initiative are encouraged to visit www.stlvolunteer.org.

For the duration of this tax preparation period, free assistance is provided on Saturdays and the times may vary by location. Families and individuals who desire assistance from the VITA program are welcome to call United Way’s 2-1-1 help line to verify their eligibility or request other information. They can also visit: http://www.211helps.org/free-tax-prep or http://gatewayeitc.org. On these sites there is a list of all needed documentation and a comprehensive list of all free tax preparation locations is accessible via a link at the bottom of the site referenced for United Way’s 2-1-1 helps page. The preparation sites accept both appointments and Saturday walk-ins. 

United Way and the coalitions have a very systematic approach to determining where the free services are offered. Schneider shared that zip code data is analyzed to ensure services are provided in an area that will benefit from the earned income tax credit. 

 “We also want to help them get the financial literacy to improve their status in life,” stated Schneider. “(In addition), we help them avoid predatory practices that are occurring in neighborhoods like with H&R Block, Jackson-Hewitt or an independent tax preparer who is not only going to charge them for the tax preparation services but also offer them a rapid refund loan with interest rates much higher than normal interest rates.”

Some of the sites will provide these additional free services: 1) ability to open a checking and/or savings account, 2) ability to meet with a credit counselor and get a free credit report, and 3) opportunity to purchase savings bonds.

Irwin shared that various logistics determine the location for preparation sites after determination is made for the regional area with the greatest demand for assistance. The initiative looks for host locations that can accommodate the volunteers and individuals who will be receiving services as well as adequate space. In addition, the facility must be equipped with internet access to allow for online filing services. An on-site manager who is willing to volunteer their time is equally important. 

Irwin hopes that this initiative will provide people the maximum amount of the earned income tax credit and child tax credit for which they qualify.

“Some people think that they don’t make enough money to file,” stated Irwin, “which may be true. But they might be missing out on a tax refund if they don’t file. Also, by utilizing free tax preparation services they save money. When people are struggling to make ends meet, $200 extra dollars can really help with paying bills or buying things for the children. In addition, we want to promote saving at tax time; save part of your refund for an emergency. Setting aside (funds) just in case of an emergency can help reduce financial stress throughout the year.”

To volunteer time to this service at one of the sites visit www.stlvolunteer.org

Photos by Kate Edmonson Volunteers work with clients on their tax returns as a part of the United Way of Greater St. Louis Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program at the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta church in Ferguson on Feb. 16.