The deadline to file tax returns is coming up soon on Tuesday, April 17, but help is available free of charge for most people with a household income of $62,000 or less.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program run by United Way of Lancaster County offers a chance to meet with trained volunteer tax preparers free of charge at Christ Church United Church of Christ, 247 S. Market St., Elizabethtown, and at Elizabethtown College, among other locations countywide.
In 2017, the program’s 212 volunteers prepared 8,720 federal tax returns at 17 locations across Lancaster County. Since commercial tax preparation services cost an average of $273, the free service saved its clients more than $2.3 million.
Ezra Rothman, United Way of Lancaster County’s VITA operations director, said at a meeting of the Elizabethtown Rotary Club that although the program’s income cap is $62,000, most clients have much lower incomes than that, with the average being $21,666. Few have incomes over $50,000 a year, Rothman said.
Rothman said one goal is to promote the use of the Earned Income Tax Credit. That is a tax refund designed for the working poor that acts as a type of reverse tax since it pays money to people who owe little or nothing in income tax as long as their income from working qualifies.
“It is actually the largest federal poverty-fighting tool that the government has to offer,” Rothman said.
Rothman said the Earned Income Tax Credit has lifted 9.4 million people out of poverty. What’s more, by making work more lucrative, it has gotten more people to seek out employment. “It actually has been shown to increase labor participation,” Rothman said.
Also, the children of EITC recipients have been shown to have better health and educational outcomes, Rothman said.
Rothman said preparing tax returns is gratifying for the volunteers.
“You sit across from someone and spend an hour of your time providing a service and they walk out saving hundreds of dollars,” Rothman said.
Rothman described his experience preparing a tax return for a single mother of two who made less than $20,000. The previous year, his client had her tax return prepared by a commercial service for a $450 fee. He spent 15 minutes preparing the tax return.
“She has so many better ways to spend her $450 than getting her taxes done,” Rothman said.
But Rothman said VITA aims to do more than save its clients the fees charged by commercial preparers. VITA aims to provide a better experience.
“We beat out professional preparers and we beat out self-preparation,” Rothman said.
VITA only handles basic tax returns, but makes sure they are done correctly, Rothman said.
“Every single one of our returns is reviewed by another volunteer,” he said.
People qualify for VITA service if their total household income in 2017 was $62,000 or less, they did not receive clergy pay, they did not have income from the ownership of a farm, they did not have rental property income and they did not have income from Puerto Rico. All VITA sites accept both appointments and walkins, but appointments are recommended. People who want to make appointments may do so by calling 211.