When you struggle to make ends meet, when bills add up and make every single day difficult — a little bit of financial slack can go a long way. Consequently, even though my position is to primarily prepare taxes, I get to see a lot of happiness in the people I serve.

My name is Ian Winner, and I am an AmeriCorps State member serving with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona (UWTSA). The VITA program is a national service providing free, high quality tax prep from volunteers that are IRS-certified. Individuals and families earning less than $66,000 each year qualify to file for free with us. UWTSA is the backbone of Pima County’s VITA program by working with partners and supporting many volunteers.

VITA helps thousands of taxpayers in Southern Arizona to get many credits they qualify for such as the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). These credits are some of the strongest tools in elevating families out of poverty. The EITC in particular lifts millions of families above the poverty line every year, increasing their children’s overall health, school performance, and adulthood earnings (https://www.cbpp.org/blog/eitc-provides-critical-support-for-working-families).

Though the credits are powerful tools in combatting poverty, many people don’t claim them due to the complexity of tax preparation and/or due to the limited mental bandwidth budgeted in the face of financial struggle. Around 20% of the eligible population doesn’t claim the EITC (https://www.eitc.irs.gov/eitc-central/about-eitc/about-eitc).

That is billions of dollars left on the table and millions of families that are left underserved by our financial system. That’s money missing from our local economies. Those families are all around in our communities which would holistically prosper from the injected financial slack and opportunity that these credits provide.

This is where VITA comes in. For the 2019 tax season in Pima County our particular program has served over 3600 people and brought over $3.6 million to the local economy. We saved our community over $910,000 in preparation fees from paid preparers. Those numbers are all still growing as we finish up amendments, late returns, and final reporting. Across the state of Arizona, our coalition serves 10 out of 15 counties. On that scale around 450 volunteers prepared 16,511 returns in 17,000 volunteer hours, bringing $21 million in refunds to the state.

I’m honored to have been a part of the tax season here, and to have met so many people and heard their stories. I’ve received a lot from the Tucson community, both during my undergrad and in my service now. I love the mentality and the identities of local businesses, of the food and restaurants, of the tattoo shops, of the countless hikes, of the biking community, of the long roots in astronomy, of the diversity of the people and the culture.

My service has allowed me to branch out of my original spheres and into completely new ones. My colleagues are some of the sharpest and most compassionate people I know. I’ve learned an extraordinary amount in the 8 months I’ve been a state member. I’m no longer scared of taxes, and will happily do them for friends and family in future years. I’ve developed my interpersonal and problem solving skills in new areas. I’ve grown to love Tucson even more, though I didn’t think it was possible.

I wish I could share all the pictures that we have from our season; that way you’d get to see all the smiles we make in our work. Unfortunately there’s A LOT of them. If you want to participate in future years and personally make some of your own, I can guarantee that wherever you are there is a VITA program in need of your help.