The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program is a nationwide organization of tax preparers available to help low-income taxpayers. Last year alone, VITA helped prepare almost one and a half million individual tax returns completely free of charge.
STACEY TISDALE: There are a lot of ads for tax preparation bombarding the airwaves at this time of year—each one promising to get you the best tax refund possible.
But getting that big refund can cost a lot in fees charged by a paid tax preparer. And for low-income Americans, that’s money that many of them depend on as their biggest payout of the year.
However, there is another lesser-known option available to low-income taxpayers: the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program —or VITA—a nationwide organization made up of volunteer tax preparers. Last year alone, vita helped prepare almost one and a half million individual tax returns—completely free of charge.
COUPLE #1: Zero.. .nothing.. It’s unbelievable right.
COUPLE #2: You don’t got to pay nothing. It’s much better. And I’ll be coming back here next year.
STACEY TISDALE: The program began in 1969 as a way to provide tax preparation to under-served sections of the population. Tax payers can find VITA locations close them on the IRS website. To qualify for help, they generally must earn less than $52,000 a year. Vita is paid for in part by the IRS, which provides about $12 million dollars to the program nationally in matching grants.
MARY ARTHUR: This is where we actually take care of about 35 to 4,000 clients…
STACEY TISDALE: Eighteen VITA locations are run by Mary Arthur and the Campaign for Working Families—a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia. Last year, they completed more than 14,000 tax returns and brought in more than $7 million dollars in refunds for low-income earners.
MARY ARTHUR: If you’re on the brink of something, tax times give you that opportunity to really pull some things together in your life.
STACEY TISDALE: All VITA volunteers are required to pass an IRS mandated test in order to prepare taxes.
MARY ARTHUR: It’s no one enters a VITA site without certifications, that– period. Our job is– to make sure that you get every credit you’re eligible for you could go to a paid preparer, and you could come to us, we really should be coming up with the same number.
STACEY TISDALE: To illustrate just how much a low-income tax payer could save using VITA’s services, this year, Mary Arthur posed as an uninformed client at a local paid tax preparer. She asked them what they would charge to file her tax returns. The result: a potential $600 dollar fee.
STACEY TISDALE: So they’re gonna charge $600 to do these are simple returns?
MARY ARTHUR: Yes.
STACEY TISDALE: That take how long?
MARY ARTHUR: For me to do my own tax return, oh, I don’t know. Ten minutes, and I– I’m a single person. I have, you know, no dependents to carry. I have, you know, I live in an apartment. You know, so it’s just– putting in a– W-2.
STACEY TISDALE: Mary wants more people to know that there’s a free alternative to these high prices. Competing against the wall-to-wall ads of paid tax preparers isn’t easy. But, despite the challenge, Mary and her staff are still trying to get the word out.
MARY ARTHUR: We don’t have a large marketing– budget. So we do what we can. So we– the team is out there. We’re all out there. In everybody’s car there’s brochures. And everywhere you stop, you drop them off.
STACEY TISDALE: It’s her hope that even more people will hear her message this year.