Free tax preparation helps low-income workers get their full refunds

As Reported by Paula J. Owen, The Worcester Telegram

With all the benefits the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) brings to families, if EITC were a drug, it would be available in every pharmacy across the state, says Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, executive director of Children’s Healthwatch.

Ms. Ettinger de Cuba was speaking Friday in the Montachusett Opportunity Council’s new 15,000-square-foot space at 49 Nursery Lane, Suite 201. The event kicked off the Massachusetts Association for Community Action’s annual Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, known as VITA, which aids low-income families with free tax preparation.

State and local leaders attending the event, including state Sen. Dean Tran, state Reps. Stephan Hay and Natalie Higgins, Fitchburg Mayor Stephen L. DiNatale and Department of Revenue Commissioner Christopher C. Harding, and spoke on the importance of families accessing the earned income credit.

In its 13th year, the Income Tax Assistance Program is administered by community action agencies annually and helps thousands of wage earners access millions of dollars in tax refunds, including the tax credit. In Massachusetts, IRS certified volunteers stationed at community action agencies have helped more than 17,000 low income taxpayers benefit from more than $32 million in tax refunds.

“EITC helps families pay for living expenses,” Ms. Ettinger de Cuba said. “After adding income from EITC, families are better able to afford utilities, groceries, transportation and housing.”

She said research indicates that children in families who are able to afford such basic needs are in better health, which also results in a reduction of health care costs.

“With all these benefits, we know that if EITC was a drug, it would be available in every pharmacy across the state,” she said. “In Massachusetts, those pharmacies are VITA sites, which provide free tax preparation services to low- and moderate-income taxpayers.”

There are about 80 VITA sites operating across the state, including MOC’s in Fitchburg, run by community action agencies and other community-based organizations and colleges. Together they serve more than 30,000 low-income taxpayers, helping them access over $60 million in tax refunds.

Last year, MOC in Fitchburg worked with more than 300 households through the program, said Leona Whetzel, vice president of community programs at MOC. The VITA program also helps MOC and other agencies identify families who may benefit from other social service programs, including food and fuel assistance, she said.

“In some cases, it is life-changing money that they use for a down payment on a house and to replace a car to get to work,” she said.

Families also use tax refunds to pay for child care and groceries, she said, and that helps fuel the local economy as families spend their refunds on goods and services.

Families are encouraged to save some of the money, she said, and to put some away for future college expenses.

DOR commissioner Mr. Harding, who expanded the EITC program, said Earned Income Tax Credit money builds stronger communities and is an economic growth engine. Next week, despite the longest partial government shutdown in history, the DOR will open up tax filing season, Mr. Harding said, as 47,000 employees were recalled.

“We’re keeping the engine running and refunds going out,” he said.

Everett Handford, state outreach and regional director for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, read a statement from Ms. Warren that lauded the VITA program and spoke to its importance.

“Each year, while we hand out tax breaks to giant corporations, American taxpayers are locked into a complex and expensive filing system,” Mr. Hanford read. “This works good for big corporations and the tax preparation industry – that’s how they turn a profit – but millions of Americans will be plunged into poverty if we don’t extend their tax breaks, too.”

More information is available at www.masscap.org/freetaxprep.

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