For low-income tax payers: VITA to the rescue!

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By Ryan Semerad

Tax season is officially underway all across the United States of America but for some Union students the process began last fall. Students in the class The Income Tax: Policy and Practice (ECO-391) received textbooks outlining tax preparation protocol and basic tax law in October in order to prepare themselves over the winter break for filing taxes for low income families and individuals as official volunteer tax preparers in the federal VITA program. Each student must pass a battery of IRS-required exams to be certified tax preparers.

Because of federal policy, VITA tax preparers can only prepare taxes for clients with incomes below $49,000. This makes the class an especially useful bridge between Union and the surrounding community. The class helps economically disadvantaged people file their taxes correctly and with optimal benefits. The best part for the clients is that it is cost-free. In this way, the class is a win-win for both students and clients.

The class is overseen by Professor Mary O’Keeffe who ensures that each tax return has been filed accurately. The class was originally conceived of in 2005 by Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Therese McCarty. The course provides a hands-on approach to learning about the tax code because it gives students a great deal of experience working with clients in face-to-face consultations and dealing directly with tax preparation software.

“The class provides me with a change of pace—a chance to do something different, something hands-on,” said Andrea Marois ‘11.

Marois and her classmates work about six hours each week on average, beginning in week four and running up until the end of week nine. According to Professor O’Keeffe, during each work session, students handle on average about 200 returns during the course of the class.

“The IRS doesn’t think like [most people] do, but the actual process is very simple, once you get used to it,” said Marois.

O’Keeffe describes the clients her students work with as people who don’t want to get in trouble with the IRS. “We have a reputation for being very accurate,” said O’Keeffe.

Despite this reputation, some clients are skeptical about how thorough and accurate a free service could be—that is until they see their tax returns.

“Tax is not quite the right word—most average Americans get a refund,” said O’Keeffe. “[Taxpayers] are giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan for most of the year—tax season is more about collecting on that loan than paying more.”

Marois describes her experience in the class as positive. “I’m glad I [took this class],” said Marois. Despite the anxiety most people have regarding their taxes, the work Professor O’Keeffe and her students are doing is worth the stress. “It is very rewarding work,” said O’Keeffe.

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