CAMDEN — For those whose every day is a financial struggle, Tax Day can be especially daunting. Affording accounting services may not be feasible at all and some commercial preparers prey on filers with low-to-moderate incomes, those where returns might be needed most.
Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) project, students and faculty at Rutgers Law–Camden are working to address this issue for hundreds of New Jersey residents this tax season by preparing and filing tax returns at no charge. Sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service, the project provides volunteers with comprehensive training to deliver this highly valuable service, which is now underway at Rutgers–Camden and available through April 9.
“By offering IRS-sponsored tax preparation free to communities, volunteers help undercut predatory practices, empower taxpayers in need, and strengthen the neighborhoods where the project operates,” says second-year Rutgers–Camden law student Matt Lewis, who serves as a project supervisor. His prior involvement in VITA through AmeriCorps was what ultimately led him to enroll in law school.
“VITA is great because it has a little something for everyone: taxes for those interested in tax policy mechanics, outreach and coordination for the community organizers, and a one-on-one connection with people for those looking for a personal experience. I got hooked early and keep coming back.”
Lewis and other Rutgers Law–Camden volunteers help clients complete their income tax returns on time, or early, and work to identify as many deductions, exemptions, and credits as possible.
According to Jill Friedman, acting assistant dean for pro bono and public interest programs at Rutgers Law–Camden, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) bring critical refunds back to Camden families living in poverty.
“Recent studies show that the EITC and CTC promote child health and nutrition; result in better educational outcomes for kids whose families receive them; and nationally have lowered the child poverty rate by fully 6.3 percentage points,” notes Friedman. “In, 2013, our pro bono volunteers helped recover $400,000 for Camden families.”
The project also provides law students with ample opportunities to sharpen their interviewing, counseling, and conflict resolution skills.
According to Steven Friedell, a professor at Rutgers Law–Camden who received the same training as students to serve as a VITA volunteer this semester, the program gives law students a lot of value.
“It helps them learn the skills needed to understand and interpret a complex set of rules to real-life situations to real clients in which it matters a lot,” says Friedell.
“I am enormously impressed by the student volunteers and site supervisors. They handle what can be stressful situations with clients with such calmness. That’s a skill that can’t be taught in the classroom.”
Since Jan. 28, the Rutgers School of Law–Camden’s VITA project is offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays beginning at 4 p.m. and on Saturdays beginning at 1 p.m. through April 9. The site operates on a first-come/first-served basis and can only serve a limited number of clients each session.
For more information about the VITA program at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden, contact Associate Director for Pro Bono and Public Interest Programs Pam Merstock-Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856-225-6406.