By Kristine Hazzard, President and CEO, Berkshire United Way
Tax season is often a time of stress for families. Getting taxes done before that April 15th deadline – April 19th in Massachusetts this year due to Patriots’ Day -- can be a crushing amount of pressure when you consider all of the other variables going on in life at any given time. Whether you do it yourself, through an accountant, or a nationwide tax preparation service, doing your taxes can be an expensive task in both time and money. The good news is: it doesn’t have to be.
One of the finest services that Berkshire United Way has invested in since 2013 is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program administered by Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity in partnership with Construct Inc. and Berkshire Community Action Council. VITA provides tax preparation free of charge to working families that meet the household income qualifications of $54,000 or less annually. All of the volunteer tax preparers are IRS-trained and certified, which means they maximize returns – without any additional charges – to get families money they might not realize they’re entitled to.
A VITA volunteer will recognize your eligibility for tax credits meant to benefit families and increase the amount of your return. For example, the earned income tax credit, which provided an average of $2,407 to those eligible last year, is for working parents that earn a modest income. The child tax credit – worth as much as $1,000 per child depending on income – allows families with a dependent under 17, including stepchildren and foster children, to maximize their return. These are credits that are often overlooked but can be a game changer in the amount your family will be able to put toward their future. A larger return means a greater step toward financial stability; research has shown that children in families receiving the tax credits do better in school, are likelier to attend college, and can be expected to earn more as adults.
Combined with other Berkshire United Way-funded financial literacy programs offered by the VITA providers that teach financial literacy – including budgeting, raising credit scores, and increasing skills in order to move into higher paying jobs – the VITA program is a crucial asset that can be the first step toward the long-term financial goals of working families.
We’ve been seeing an increase in families taking advantage of this great program year after year, getting money that’s helping to pay off debts, increase savings, and help solidify a critical step in the path to a stable, thriving life in Berkshire County. Every working family that makes strides toward stability in turn makes our entire community that much stronger.
A great story courtesy of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity is about a first-time VITA client who was struggling with an abusive spouse being sent to prison and finding a shortfall in income as a result. With foreclosure looming, she utilized VITA and a financial coach in order to get her finances – and her family – back on track. She’s now enjoying a promotion at work, is ahead on her mortgage, and has taken the appropriate legal action to begin moving her family’s lives forward.
For the 2014 tax year, the VITA program secured 1,285 working families over $1.9 million in tax refunds. That’s over half a million more than 2013 and one million more than the amount returned for the 2012 tax year. The numbers show that VITA usage is growing every year, but according to the IRS, the potential for Berkshire County returns is actually $4 million – that means county residents are leaving over $2 million on the table that could be reinvested into our local community. Keeping in mind that nearly one quarter of working families in Berkshire County qualify for VITA, this is a huge opportunity for our community and we should be doing everything we can to help spread the word.
VITA is available countywide through Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, Construct Inc., and Berkshire Community Action council. VITA services are also available through AARP Tax Aide for people over 60. If you or someone you know could benefit from the VITA program, please visit www.berkshirehabitat.org or www.berkshireunitedway.org for more information.