If someone had told me a year ago that one of my greatest professors in college would be the tax system, I would have told them to shove it elsewhere. However, I have learned just as much about myself, about the Berkshires and about America, as I have about the tax code.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, I pile into a minivan with a group of students, headed by the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) director Paula Consolini and Robbie Dulin ’19, to fill out tax returns in North Adams. Together, we make up the Purple Valley Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) team. We climb up to the second floor of a Berkshire strip mall and wave to either Rose or Karen, the receptionists who we borrow from the Berkshire Community Action Council. Oftentimes, our first clients are already waiting for us.
Our clients: I’ve worked with young 18-year-olds fresh out of high school, old doting couples, supermoms, savvy immigrants, College faculty, bachelors, children and more. They all come to get their taxes filed through our no-cost VITA program.
VITA, a national program connected to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), as claimed on their website, aims to offer “free tax help to people who generally make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities and limited English speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns.” What the website doesn’t tell you, is how VITA is one of the few national programs aimed at making the system work.
The system: Most social policy work and social safety net programs use the tax returns to means-test their participants. National programs from SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps, to LIHEAP, a fuel assistance program, all require that applicants submit their tax returns as proof of eligibility. The Affordable Care Act depends on tax penalties for its effectiveness, as well. The tax code is at the heart of policy work in the United States.
My role as a tax consultant tells me just as much about U.S. policy as my classes at the College. “Principles of Microeconomics” may have taught me about house budgets, poverty and theories on economic redistribution, but VITA showed me how a Berkshire resident could spend $7000 on rent when their budget only has $16,500 dollars of income to work with. Theory tells me this client is above the poverty line; experience tells me otherwise. The poverty line is based off of caloric consumption in relation to household budget and the metric was established in the mid-20th century. Nowadays, economists and policy workers speculate that this food-to-income percentage has dropped while other expenses, such as housing, have risen in proportion. Only at VITA can I see this playing out in real-time. And more importantly, I can help fix this problem. Through the application of a rental deduction, I got the client a larger refund that they then used to pay part of next year’s rent. I don’t have to wait until I graduate to make a difference, and you don’t either.
I would like to point out that I’m not endowed with any magical tax filing powers. I also don’t particularly enjoy pouring over W-2s or 1099s. However, I make the time to go down to North Adams because I love the people we work with, and I know the work that we do makes a big difference in their lives. Through a bit of studying and a certification test, any College community member — faculty, student or alum — can come join Purple Valley VITA and do their part in making the world a bit better.
Maria Hidalgo Romero ’20 is from Nokomis, Fla. She lives in Sage.