Social Services Today

Program helps with tax prep, job skills
Feb. 15, 2014 @ 11:00 PM

With tax season looming in the near future, this month’s column highlights DSS’s partnership with Reinvestment Partners, a Durham nonprofit that offers a great free resource for low-income members of our community who need tax preparation help. 

For the past five years, DSS has partnered with Reinvestment Partners on the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, a perfect example of a win-win effort.  VITA offers free tax help to people who make $52,000 or less and need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. And in partnership with Reinvestment Partners, DSS social workers identify clients from the Work First program to receive training and employment as tax preparers with this program.

Low-income individuals who are eligible for Earned Income Tax Credit are prime targets for tax fraud and exorbitant tax preparation fees. VITA alleviates the possibility of these folks getting involved with tax fraud and relieves them from the burden of paying the fees. 

Last year, this VITA program provided free tax services to nearly 1,000 low-income clients, saving each of those individuals between $250 and $500 in tax preparation fees.  DSS  also works together with Reinvestment Partners to educate DSS clients and other low-income folks about the Earned Income Tax Credit, ensuring that they don’t leave any money on the table.

And what makes this initiative even better is the job training and tax preparation employment received by DSS clients enrolled in Work First -- North Carolina’s TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) plan to help families move off of welfare and into jobs.  This year, five Work First clients have been rigorously trained and tested to make sure that they are able to deliver quality tax prep services.  (They have all tested above the advanced level.) 

With this program, Work First participants gain job skills as well as have the chance to help others.  In addition to learning skills specific to tax preparation, the Work First participants receive weekly training from community leaders -- such as bankers, investment professionals and community advocates -- to  enhance their job skills, including résumé preparation and interviewing .  As they work offering tax prep services, Work First clients strengthen their skills with hardware and software, data entry, math and customer service.

The goal of the program is to help clients become better prepared to find permanent employment. Knowing that the best time to find a job is when you are employed, the program supports participants in their search even in the midst of tax season.

This partnership with VITA was started in response to DSS concerns that many individuals were not utilizing the Earned Income Credit.  The strategy of providing free tax preparation assistance has been very successful and has grown into a program that also supports Work First’s mission of helping individuals go to work.   The Work First training component is unique to the Reinvestment Partners’ Vita site and one that we hope is a replicable model across the country.

This free tax assistance, which offers quality service and convenient hours, is at Northgate Mall and North Carolina Central University through April 12th.  To make an appointment or get more information, call 919-286-1822 or go online to www.nc-tac.com.   

Michael A. Becketts is the director of social Services for Durham County.