Woos Help Trentonians Tackle Tax Season

Apr 18, 2017
Sarah M. Binder
Woodrow Wilson School

Today is Tax Day in the United States. Many U.S. residents struggle with the daunting task of preparing accurate income tax returns, or paying the necessary fees to do so — whether for the use of online software such as TurboTax, or a visit to an independent tax accountant.

For the past four years, local low-income clients at Trenton’s Arm in Arm food pantry have received free tax preparation from graduate students of the Woodrow Wilson School. The volunteer work allows the students to witness policy topics playing out in the real world, such as how the Earned Income Tax Credit can increase refunds for low-income residents.

“Our tax system can be pretty intimidating, especially to individuals with less education, so the free tax preparation is a vital service. Paid preparers can charge over a hundred dollars, and our clients really can't afford that,” said Ryan Stoffers MPA ’17, this year’s site coordinator. The clients must have income below $65,000 to qualify; however, Stoffers noted, it was rare to see a return with income above $35,000.

Along with Stoffers, five MPA1s, two MPA2s and one MPP served as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) preparers, as part of the United Way of Greater Mercer County’s network of VITA sites. In fall 2016, the students attended a three-hour, on-campus training to learn about the tax return process and how to use the software. Starting the first week of the spring semester and continuing throughout tax season, volunteers visited Arm in Arm every Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to prepare clients’ taxes.

As the site coordinator, Stoffers recruited volunteers, ensured they completed the training and IRS’ certification process and test, and conducted a quality review of every return every week. Each week, participants included three student preparers, a United Way “resident tax guru” and one student greeter, who helped the site run smoothly and assisted clients with their intake forms. On one recent Friday, the students completed 30 tax returns.

“It was a really good way of getting out of the ‘orange bubble’ and working with low-income clients. So much of the discussion on domestic policy here can seem abstract or affecting people far away, but Trenton is a very distressed city, and it's just down the highway,” Stoffers said. “It's a good reminder that policy decisions have consequences and motivation to keep working toward better ones.”

Stoffers, this year’s site coordinator, succeeds previous coordinators Hannah Shaw MPA ’15, who started the volunteer program in her first year at WWS, and Kate Burke MPA ’16.