Given that tomorrow is Tax Day, I wanted to write about a volunteer project I’ve been doing for the last few months.
For three years I have been an active volunteer with the amazing New York Cares, which is a volunteer-aggregation organization. If you are local to NYC, or have been through Grand Central Station anytime during the holiday season, you may know them for the Winter Coat Drive program which provides gently used outerwear for free to homeless people. In the past, I’ve helped out with a gigantic Easter egg hunt in Prospect Park and did a one month stint in my neighborhood at a special ed high school helping teach life skills to kids through an after-school cooking club.
In this time of growing economic insecurity, I felt compelled to do something more, so I joined the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Preparation program (aka VITA) to serve low-income New Yorkers by helping them file their taxes for free. Sexy, no? I have done my own taxes for years but this was taking my penchant for completing forms to a whole new level. I had to take an extensive online course through the IRS and do in-person training to cover the NY state & city forms. I spent the week after Christmas getting deep into tax law – what better way to start the New Year than dissecting recent Congressional revisions to the tax code!
I was scared at the beginning – I’ve never done any economic development work and the constituents of this program are people I rarely comes across in the gentrified world of the performing arts. Reaching out to help people who live radically different lives than my own was actually the biggest attraction.
This is the final week, and while I don’t have totals yet for the whole season, I can tell you this (from the NY Cares program director):
As of the beginning of March, halfway through the season, New York Cares volunteers have completed more than 4,600 returns. You have helped return $10.6 million to low-income New Yorkers, about $6 million of which is from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The average refund is about $2,300.
Total refunds secured through our program are up by over $2.5 million from this time last year. In the current economic climate, this will have a great impact on our community and will change the lives of many of the families you have served.
My tax site specifically (housed at the wonderful Brooklyn Cooperative) got this progress report last month:
As of the end of February, New York Cares volunteers at the Bushwick site have completed 432 tax returns for a total of $875,469.
We were also visited by an IRS quality control agent and received exemplary remarks and ratings based on interviews with folks we helped and a random audit of returns we prepared – no mistakes at all.
I didn’t realize how rewarding it would be to help someone who qualifies for the Earned Income Credit, or work with a young adult who is filing their taxes for the first time, or help a retired widow collect her refund. We in the arts often live on meager income and develop resourceful strategies to get by, but it is a whole different thing when you meet a someone in their early 20s who qualifies as Head of Household by supporting their parent & siblings on less than $20,000 in NYC.
This program was an amazing learning experience for me on many levels. Do you volunteer and if so, what kinds of programs do you like to participate in?
Bonus link: I recently found another great resource for artists & taxes. Check out the FREE worksheets that the fantastic folks at Riley Associates PC have put together to help artists keep accurate records for tax purposes.