The Internal Revenue Service Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) offers free tax help to people who cannot afford professional assistance. VITA volunteers help prepare basic tax returns for taxpayers with special needs, including persons with disabilities, those with a low to moderate income, non-English speaking persons and elderly taxpayers. A special emphasis of the VITA program is to assist taxpayers who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to claim and quickly receive it. This is a refundable credit for low-income working individuals and families. When the EITC exceeds the amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund to those who claim and qualify for the credit. The EITC is money for people who work but do not earn enough income for their family size, and could use the EITC to put food on the table, move into better housing, invest in education, transportation, or save for the future. In addition to the savings on tax preparation fees, when VITA returns can be filed electronically it saves low-income taxpayers from the exorbitant costs of return anticipation loans (RALs), often advertised as rapid refunds.
The Youngstown Area Economic Opportunity Coalition is a community-based partnership in Ohio, which has been working with the IRS for the past two years to provide tax awareness and education, free income tax preparation through the VITA program, and financial literacy to promote asset building. Core members of the Coalition include Mahoning Youngstown Community Action Partnership (MYCAP), Youngstown State University (YSU), Home Savings and Loan, North Side Citizens Coalition for Community Development (NSCC) and the Youngstown/Mahoning Libraries. Over fifty volunteers work at any seven VITA sites sponsored by the Coalition from February through April to prepare income taxes for free to low-income taxpayers. The sites are conveniently located at MYCAP, YSU, a Goodwill site and public libraries. In addition to regular posted hours, the Coalition offers a well attended Super Saturday event to kick off the filing season. In the 2005 filing season, the Coalition prepared 553 federal tax returns, in addition to nearly as many state tax returns, with a 91% e-file rate. Total EITC dollars returned were $280,396, for a total refund count of $663,274. When the savings on tax preparation and RALS is added, the total impact to the community was at least $773,874. In addition to the free income tax preparation, the Coalition provided tax awareness and financial literacy through outreach.
The Youngstown Coalition intends to provide an even greater level of service for the 2006 filing season with the goal of making a $1,000,000 impact to the community. Since the total number of tax returns prepared increased 40% from filing season 2004 to 2005, this goal is certainly within reach. The great impact of the Youngstown Area Economic Opportunity Coalition has been possible thanks to the many volunteer hours generously given by the individuals involved with MYCAP, YSU, and the other coalition partners. Together they have met a real need in the community and demonstrated positive results.