Tax assistance program seen as difference maker

Boston Statehouse

FILE – This Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 file photo shows part of a 1040 federal tax form printed from the Internal Revenue Service website. On Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s tax rate on a family making $75,000 dollars a year would go from 12% to 25%. A current federal tax rate of 12% applies to families making up to $80,000, or individuals making up to $40,000. That would still apply under Biden, who has vowed publicly not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000. (Associated Press)

BOSTON (SHNS) – For single mother Naurie Del Valle, getting volunteer help filing her taxes opened up a key door for her small daycare business.

Two years ago, Del Valle said Friday, she purchased a house and was able to expand the backyard using money she gained from a refund facilitated through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program. That in turn gave her clearance to open her daycare.

“Not opening a daycare means no income for my family. I have three girls, and I’m a single mom,” Del Valle said during a call hosted by the Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP) to kick off the annual tax season.

Tens of thousands of Massachusetts taxpayers are able to access tax refunds, and take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit, through the VITA program administered at about 80 sites across Massachusetts. The state’s earned income tax credit last year increased from 23 percent to 30 percent of the federal credit.

Volunteers at the locations “make you feel [like] a family,” Del Valle said, describing them as more available and accessible than other state aid offices.

According to MASSCAP’s website, the program offer free assistance filing or preparing taxes for “people who generally make $57,000 or less,” including people with disabilities, elderly adults and those with limited English proficiency.

The program helps more than 18,000 taxpayers collectively receive more than $60 million in tax refunds, according to MASSCAP. Many taxpayers can get thousands of dollars each, which advocates said is an important boost for low-income earners to help with rent, food or other costs.

“This is life-changing money in many cases for people,” said Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action Pioneer Valley.

Historically, the federal government was the sole underwriter of the VITA program through the IRS, but the state began contributing in fiscal year 2020 with $200,000 included in the state budget. This year’s budget included $820,000, a big boost that supporters said will help the program continue its work.

“VITA is a triple win,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat. “It’s a win for workers and families, returning these hard-earned dollars where they’re needed most. It’s a win for local and regional economies, and it’s a win for the state. It’s a massive return on investment.”

Comerford said she plans to refile legislation this session expanding the earned income tax credit, or EITC, because “when people work, they should not live in poverty.”

During the pandemic, many community action agencies have pivoted to remote work to help clients access the tax refunds. For example, The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council will continue to run its VITA program this year now that tax-filing season has kicked off, accepting clients on a cloud platform, according to Ancel Tejada, the group’s financial literacy coordinator.

Other COVID-era changes are unlikely to repeat this year. In 2020, the federal government and states including Massachusetts pushed the income tax-filing deadline back to July 15 to create more flexibility for the public, but the 2021 deadline once again stands at April 15.

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