Swarthmore Students Help
Local Residents Prepare Their Taxes
by Tiffany Liao '10
Most student volunteers would say you can't put a price on the rewards of community service, but the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is the rare program that does - in the form of tax refunds. Through VITA, student volunteers offer free tax preparation for low-income residents in order to maximize their tax refunds and help them access tax credits.
"You get to see that you're giving back money to this community," says VITA student coordinator Debbie Nguyen '11. "You see immediately that there's $5,000 that the family is getting back from their taxes."
The program is supported by the Delaware County Asset Development Group (DelCo AD), a consortium of organizations that provides financial services to residents and businesses in the local area.
Twenty-nine Swarthmore students are participating in the program this year. That number has doubled over the last five years due in large part to efforts of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. By recruiting volunteers and providing services such as transportation to VITA sites, the Lang Center has contributed to the increase in volunteers and the number of VITA tax preparation sites.
This growth has had a tangible effect on the surrounding community. According to DelCo Ad, VITA volunteers prepared 1,275 returns for Delaware County taxpayers and helped return $1,869,480 to area residents in the last year alone.
Even with a rigorous academic workload, student volunteers find time to undergo 20 hours of extensive training and commit to weekly sessions at VITA sites working as tax preparers, quality reviewers or greeters. Debra Kardon-Brown, assistant director for student programs at the Lang Center, believes that students are drawn to the program because it allows them to directly combat issues of social welfare while piquing their academic interests.
"Swarthmore students are driven, as a group, to extract the most learning out of any experience, and the deepest level of understanding that is possible in the given time frame," Kardon-Brown says. "VITA allows exposure to dozens of issues around poverty and access, and the opportunity not only to look at it in a very human-to-human way, but to actually do something about it immediately."
Beyond gaining immediate gratification, VITA volunteers also acquire financial literacy and a deeper understanding of wealth redistribution. "I was excited to provide a valued service to families, and at the same time develop a personally useful skill," says VITA student coordinator Yancy Liao '11.
Like other volunteers, Liao also finds that working at VITA is a good way to gain perspective on academic stress and to interact with the surrounding community. "A few hours a weeks' connection with 'normal' people, who are worried more about finances than papers, helps to maintain my sanity," he adds.
This year, Swarthmore student volunteers will also participate in a study initiated by members of the Economics Department that will focus on new opportunities for saving tax refunds.
"[T]he opportunity to participate in rigorous field research provides a great but underutilized complement to our students' academic programs," says Associate Professor of Economics Thomas Dee '90. "I think it also enhances the impact of our students' service activities, allowing them to combine knowledge creation that can be used by others with their good deeds."
Dee hopes that the study will further assist the VITA program in providing low-income families with wealth-building tools - yet another example of the interplay of academics and community service in the VITA program.