Those Making Less Than $56K Can File Their Taxes For Free With VITA Program

TAPinto.net —January 29, 2019


NEWARK, NJ — When Keturah Muhammad tried to prepare her own taxes to save about $200, she realized she had to pay the state of New York about $400.

Her mom recommended she go to a free tax preparer in Newark under the federal Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. The program offers free tax filing to people who generally make $56,000 or less and is sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service.

"Not only did they prepare my taxes," Muhammad said. "That New York State return — they explained to me what was going on, why I was owing such a large amount. It actually went down. So I was happy that I came in."

Muhammad was actually turned away at the first location she went to because it had too many clients, but she was eventually able to file her taxes for free at city hall. She would later go on to volunteer for the same program and work her way up to be an advanced pro bono tax preparer.

"The amount of tax preparation fees can be the difference between someone's lights possibly being cut off or not having a necessity (like) food, transportation," she said.

She would later intern for United Way. The organization's Essex and West Hudson branch teamed up with Prudential and Citi Bank to expand the VITA program and create the Newark Asset Building Coalition. The coalition consists of several local community-based organizations that provide locations for people to get their taxes done for free.

"The Asset Building Coalition prepared 8,500 tax returns last year, collecting roughly $13 million total in federal refunds," said United Way of Essex and West Hudson President and CEO Catherine Wilson today at city hall. "Newark residents also claimed close to $6 million in earned income tax credits and consumers who use our free tax program also saved $1.7 million in tax filing fees."

About 700 more tax returns were filed last year than in 2017, the city said.

The program helps residents get the most out of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit program, which may often be overlooked by residents who are filing for themselves.

"Too often, we know that taxpayers are unaware of the tax credit benefits that are available to them, like the ETIC Earn Income Tax Credit," said Prudential Financial's associate manager of Corporate Giving, Catherine Garcia. "Or they're simply unable to afford the conventional fees for tax services which would force them to leave a critical resource on the table."

Helen Steblecki, vice president of the Citi Bank Foundation's Community Development Market Manager, said the Earned Income Tax Credit "changes lives" and provides a "lifeline" to struggling residents.

"When you take into account that nearly half of all U.S. households, about 44 percent, lack the savings to over even a modest emergency expense, these dollars can make a big difference between living above or below the poverty line," Steblecki said.

New Jersey Citizen Action, which will provide a location for filing, said the VITA program also helps people who are eager to get their returns and are more susceptible to getting scammed.

"Too many filers fall prey to criminal scammers, as well as unscrupulous for-profit tax preparer that charge expensive hidden fees," said New Jersey City Action Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye in a statement. "For these reasons, it is more important than ever to prevent the spread of misinformation and promote the availability of free tax preparation services."

Newark Deputy Mayor John Palmieri said having cash going back to Newarkers only helps the local economy.

"It remains in the community. It stays with the neighborhoods. It stays with working families. It's critical to the growth of the community," he said.

The VITA program will also offer Financial Aid U, which will help low-income students fill out the FAFSA form to access financial aid for college.

The program is not just for Newark residents, said Wilson, of United Way. Those in surrounding areas may also use the service.

Below are the participating Newark Asset Building Coalition locations where free tax preparation will be done:

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