I spent my Saturday morning this weekend observing one of the final hectic sessions of our local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)program in North Adams, coordinated by the Experiential Education program at Williams College using the office and outreach of the Berkshire Community Action Council. I had heard about this program for a long time, so I thought I should finally check it out (and consider getting trained to volunteer next year, which I now plan to do).
I was impressed by the services being rendered with less than ideal hardware and space available. I heard several very low income people comment that they hadn’t bothered filing taxes in recent years because they earned such a small amount of money but they hadn’t realized they might be owed some taxes back and possibly even qualify for an earned income tax credit above the small amount they had paid in federal taxes. It was clear to me that our community could benefit economically from a more widely publicized and better funded campaign to raise awareness about free tax assistance and the value of the earned income tax credit. The studies I’ve read suggest that something like 15-25% of EITC refunds go unclaimed, which is a wasted resource for the poor.
I also wanted to get a feel for how the VITA program could help direct low-income people towards financial education and asset-building opportunities, especially when people are sometimes receiving small windfalls in EITC money. This year the program didn’t offer a formal referral component that could make people aware of financial education classes, IDA accounts, and other resources, but I’d like to help organize that for next year. I plan to research what other communities have done successfully in that regard.
Another point that my VITA visit impressed upon me is just how complicated are the issues facing low-income families, and how intertwined poverty is with other “risk factors” (to borrow some jargon from a meeting I attended this morning on a local early childhood initiative). In just the few VITA clients I met, there were cases of domestic abuse, significant mental disability, and bitter (financially debilitating) divorce. Those interactions reinforced the need for networks of support among low-income asset-builders. I was also struck when one woman mentioned that she was trying to address some of the issues in her life with the help of her church, which another woman sitting nearby (a stranger to the first) overheard, and soon the two women were exchanging stories about when they were born again; they hugged and made plans to see each other at an upcoming bible study, then returned to their tax questions. Now I’m not remotely evangelical, and honestly in some situations this exchange might have led me to roll my eyes, but there was no denying that these two women were open to bringing about some positive (badly needed) change in their lives, and they were looking to religion as their main hope for such change. If their churches could act as a vehicle for motivating them to obtain financial literacy, asset-building habits, job readiness skills, etc., I think that would offer the best possibility to get them out of the cycle of poverty. Both women had obviously been advised and encouraged numerous times by the staff at BCAC but had been unable to bring about change in their lives on the basis of that advice and encouragement against all the obstacles facing them. Perhaps there would be stronger motivation and support (for these two particular women) if the counsel were delivered in the context of a kind of church-sanctioned self-improvement. I know that’s not a new idea, but it’s not my default approach to community development, so it will take me some time to figure out what role the churches might actually play. And, of course, we’re not just speaking of churches. For other folks, the message might need to be embedded in a workplace network, or a neighborhood network. I’m reminded of the America Saves network strategy that I wrote about the week before last. I find myself getting nudged more and more in that direction.