Students offer help on tax forms

On Jan. 31, Yale VITA, a clinic that offers free assistance to low-income taxpayers filing tax returns, opened its doors at 254 College St. Sam Hamer ’13, who founded the program, sat down with the Yale Daily News to discuss his new endeavor.

Q Tell me about the new program you’ve launched, Yale VITA.

A Actually, the pronunciation is a matter of debate, whether it’s “vee-tah” or “viy-tah.” VITA stands for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, and it’s an IRS program that has clinics across the country. The purpose of VITA is to help those who have household income of $49,000 or less to file their income tax returns accurately and with maximum tax credits. So we’re really targeting working-class folks who have earned income and qualify for credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is the most valuable credit for folks who are of that income bracket. The Yale VITA project I think is unique because it’s run only by students. VITA sites across the country are drawing volunteers from the community – it’s people in the community helping people in the community – and I think we’re unique because we’re a student-run tax clinic.

Q So if I were from New Haven with an income of under $49,000 a year and I came to Yale VITA, can you take me through the steps of what you would do for me?

A So, you would come to our clinic at 254 College St., second floor. We’re open 6 — 9 pm, Monday and Thursday every week, through tax day, which this year is April 18. So you would come up and we would hand you an intake interview sheet and a short survey, and you would complete the intake interview. On that form you list all your sources of income, your personal information, you know, any deductions or credits you think you can claim, all sorts of stuff. And then we make a copy of your social security card or your I-20 if you’re not a citizen, a copy of your photo ID, and then we bring you back, and we pair the taxpayers with return-preparers. And we sit down at the computer and we go through a big interview. The quick ones take 30 minutes, some of the more complicated ones can take an hour. We go through everything, and at the end either a red number or a green number pops up on the screen. And if it’s a green number — and we’ve only had green numbers thus far — that’s [the amount] you should expect from the IRS. We electronically file all returns and that goes straight to the IRS. Then people walk out with a copy of their tax return.

Q Can you tell me a bit about the other Yale students that are working with you on this?

A It really runs the gamut. A lot of the folks at the Law School are really interested in this. I’d say the plurality is college students. I’m a sophomore, we have freshmen, a lot of freshman actually. There are a couple people from other years, lots of law students, one SOM student, and one or two grad students.

QWhat sort of skills do volunteers need to be taught beforehand?

A Everything from documenting people’s personal information, and then there are types of income, W2, 10-99 R’s for retirement, unemployment compensation, medical bills, any type of basic income. We don’t do capital gains or trust funds; I don’t know anyone with a household income of $49,000 and a trust fund! [Training] entails a 10-15 online curriculum, and then an exam at the end. And then folks are qualified to prepare taxes on a volunteer basis.

Q What was the process of setting up Yale VITA?

A Yeah, actually we’re operating as a YHHAP service project, which has been really great for publicity reasons. It all started last semester; I do a program here called Dwight Hall Urban Fellows. The short of it is that folks intern for a New Haven nonprofit for 6-8 hours a week, so I was with an organization last semester called the New Life Corporation, over in the West River neighborhood. And [the corporation] manages VITA sites; they do financial literacy programs [and] create I-20 applications to help folks who are maybe non-resident aliens file their taxes. I was working with them and thought, “Hey, why don’t we use this great resource that’s Yale to start our own VITA site.”

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