Tax season is upon us and some local residents might look to the rapid refund loans offered by various tax preparation businesses that seem attractive -- but unfortunately include steep fees. I’d encourage people to instead look at filing their taxes for free with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, offered throughout the county by IRS certified volunteers.
Households making less than $52,000 a year are eligible to take advantage of the VITA program and may qualify for an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) of up to $6,044, which goes a long way toward maximizing a family’s income. Berkshire United Way supports the VITA program by funding Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to provide these free services. Another essential provider in the community is Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC). VITA offers fast returns, but without the fees.
Berkshire United Way is committed to improving early literacy and reducing youth risk-taking behaviors and we know that the financial stability of the home in which a child lives impacts these conditions. Families that struggle financially are often challenged in other ways as well, so reading to their child or modeling healthy decision making for their teens may not be their top priority as they struggle to make ends meet. That’s why it’s essential to support a program like VITA that can increase a family’s income.
One young mom in Pittsfield found herself in default with a student loan and unable to afford housing. After she found a job, filed her taxes for free with the VITA program and found she was eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), she put her full tax refund toward paying off her debt. Now, she is advancing her career and financial goals and moving toward homeownership. Her income was only $20,000, with an EITC credit of $5,000; this mom increased her annual income by 25 percent! With a few years of an income tax return like that a family can get on track to financial stability.
The VITA program has been operational in this county for years but an IRS analysis demonstrated an additional $4 million in EITC funds were available to our community but not being accessed. To get those dollars back to low-income, working families we needed more sites, greater promotion of the program, and more community involvement. Berkshire United Way and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing convened a meeting with local agencies, community leaders and business professionals to ensure more families use the VITA program and get the return they earned. The community came together to increase access to the program and volunteers were recruited to the program in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and BCAC.
Through this collaboration last year, federal refunds to Berkshire County low-income working residents totaled $832,480 -- almost double the returns from the year before, with an average EITC of $1,200 per household.
Because this program was such a success, Berkshire United Way’s board of directors agreed to increase support to Habitat for Humanity to expand efforts in Pittsfield and help open additional sites in Lee and Great Barrington. Taxes are due by April 15, and we encourage all eligible working families to access this free community service. Maximize your income -- and invest those dollars into your savings account, pay off debts, or "Buy in the Berkshires," infusing the funds into our local economy.
Together, step by step, we can help ensure that Berkshire County is a community of hope and opportunity where every individual and family lives, works and thrives. Call Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity today at 413-881-5500 for more information and to see if you’re eligible to participate in the VITA program.
Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, berkshireunitedway.org.