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Taxing Questions: Musings on My Stint as a Volunteer Tax Preparer

The second-floor office space at the New York Common Pantry on East 109th Street is pretty much what you’d imagine for a small and underfunded charitable organization in this city. A linoleum-floored, cinderblock-walled space carved into six cubicles by partitions a shade of industrial gray that you forget the instant you look away from them. Walls painted several odd shades of green that you can’t forget, even though you wish you could. A couple of windows. People helping New Yorkers who need it.

I’m here at 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening. The weather has been shifty this spring, and today everyone’s got umbrellas and layers, but at least it’s still light out. I’m waiting for the day shift –-the folks who really work for the Common Pantry-- to finish up and clear out. Then I occupy someone’s cube, log onto a special account on the server, and settle in for four hours of doing people’s taxes.

Unbeknownst to most people in my income bracket, there is a whole network of volunteer tax preparers across the land who help folks navigate the complexities of our arcane tax system and make sure their returns are filed accurately. New York Cares manages a network of tax prep volunteers here in the city, placing them with a variety of different organizations. That’s how I heard about the program. 

I like numbers, I'm meticulous, and I've stubbornly done my own taxes forever. It seemed like a good fit. I’ve thought about signing on for the past several years, actually, but I’ve never had the energy or desire to work my way through the IRS’s extensive, required, online training course. This year, with a bit of time on my hands, I finally followed through. I currently hold an Advanced certification through the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Which means if your household income is $54,000 or less and you don’t have any capital gains, and/or you are elderly or disabled, or a few other qualifications apply, I can do your taxes for you.

The VITA program uses an application called Tax Slayer, which makes me feel heroic. Buffy slays vampires, I slay taxes. A fair amount of what I do is data entry, with Tax Slayer chewing through the calculations and eligibility decisions. But inevitably some bits require human judgment, and it still takes a human to know the questions to ask, and where to probe further--things our clients may not even realize can help them tax-wise.

I’ve learned to appreciate how relatively simple my tax situation is. Little to none of the vast machinery of income redistribution that forms part of the income tax system applies to me or most of my peers. Tax time is about hoping to break even, or at worst having to write a fairly small check. But for many of the clients I encounter at the New York Common Pantry, tax time is a vital part of their economic planning for the year. It can mean as much as several months’ worth of rent and groceries, delivered as a windfall in the form of a refund check.

My biggest challenge with my role is how it relates to the Affordable Care Act. As a volunteer tax preparer, I am for better or worse the Obamacare police. If anyone can't convince me that they had insurance in 2016, and they don't merit some type of exemption, I'm the one who puts that into the software and calculates the resulting penalty. This feels wrong, even though I get intellectually why they wrote the law that way. Fortunately, it hasn’t come up very often -- most clients have Medicare or Medicaid, or they get insurance through work. But then there was the quiet young guy who, when I asked about his insurance situation, said he didn't know. I explained why that wasn’t a good answer, and fortunately, he called his mom and found out that, yes, he did have coverage. Penalty avoided.

I first published this piece on LinkedIn in March. By the end of tax season, I had worked with 45 clients, who collectively got back a net of over $88,000 from Uncle Sam and the State of New York. That’s almost $2,000 per household. But the variance around that average was huge. My biggest refund this tax season was a family who through a combination of having the right income and the right number of kids and probably the wrong withholding on their paychecks, ended up getting $13,000. That was a good evening.

In total, this year’s Tax Prep volunteers including my fellow New York Cares volunteers helped complete more than 11,000 tax returns for New Yorkers. The refunds on all of those returns added up to over $17 million given back to the community, to people who, in many cases, desperately needed the extra help and who would otherwise have had to pay a chunk of their refunds to paid tax preparers.

I don't know how to fix taxes in the US. If I did, this essay would have taken a more prescriptive tone. But I have witnessed firsthand how much this overly complex and cobbled together system riddled with loopholes helps working families get by. As Washington works on tax reform, I’m watching with a different and much more engaged perspective than I had before I did this project. And I’m hoping that Congress finds ways to make the tax process simpler without hurting those whom I’ve been able to help.


If you're interested in volunteering for our VITA Tax Preparation Program, click here to find out more.

Joseph Laszlo's picture