Preparing Real Good for Free (with apologies to Joni Mitchell)

I'm preparing income taxes for others for the first time in years, and I am loving it.

At work, we are well underway with our new project of being a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) site. January 31 was our kick-off, and since then, a co-worker and I have been doing returns every day. A third co-worker joins us next week. The IRS has provided us with booklets, guides, forms, training, and software. Our mission: to help more low-income people get refunds from earned income credit (EIC). Apparently many people eligible for this credit do not claim it.

We are certainly seeing low-income people, to the tune of 5 to 6 returns per day. We do their taxes on our computers, including electronic filing. I know that many of them would have to pay fees of three digits to commercial tax prep firms for what we are providing - for free.

I get to be the ERO! (That's an Electronic Return Originator.) W00t!

Almost everyone I have seen so far is a special case. The population of low-income workers is filled with special cases, and it takes time and careful consultation with the reference materials to determine just where they fit into the tax system. No one minds that I'm not an expert who has the right answer for them immediately. One woman I helped today said that she is always falling through the cracks. She fell through a few more today - not quite eligible for head of household, a little too much money for EIC. I told her she would be able to get a few hundred more dollars back next year as head of household, and that we could help her developmentally disabled son get a few hundred dollars more on his return this year. She thanked me for explaining her taxes to her. She'll be back.

I am trying to empower my clients as much as I can to understand how the tax system classifies them, and where there are opportunities for them. People with young kids do the best. They can reduce their tax to zero, getting a refund of everything they paid in, plus get thousands of dollars more in EIC.

There is only one downside. Cigarette smoke. I don't understand how so many people who live on so little money find money to spend cigarettes. I have the person sit right beside me and watch what I am typing into the computer, and if he or she is a smoker, I'm very aware of the smell. I'm currently recovering from a mild cold, so my nose and lungs are feeling sensitive. I have to drink water, and I cough and cough as I am doing these returns.

It's OK, though. I spend most of my time alone in front of the computer, moving numbers around in an alternate version of reality. It is a breath of fresh air - even with a cigarette odor or two - to work with people, and to know that I made things a little better for them today.

And I am going to add up all the EIC that people get through us, and use that when we go back to our main funders, hat in hand, saying "here is something we did to help people in this county."

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