Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is a free, safe way for low income families to access funds they’ve already worked for, including through the California state version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, CalEITC. 

It’s also a lifeline for people whose only alternative is paying extortionate rates to predatory vendors. 

For over a decade, UWGLA has been a leader in raising awareness around VITA services and tax credits for low-income working families in Los Angeles County.  UWGLA, along with key partners including the City of Los Angeles and Koreatown Youth + Community Center, created Free Tax Prep LA to connect filers with valuable VITA services in their communities.

Challenges with the pandemic

COVID-19 brought challenges and urgency to VITA programs. With sources of income evaporating as the economy shut down, families needed access to funds quickly. The extension of the income tax deadline to July 15, as well as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act one-time cash payments for eligible families gave extra time and motivation to help more families. Access to these funds can make a difference for people struggling to pay rent and other household bills.

United Way of Greater LA has been a supporter of VITA programs for years, and additional grants from the Pandemic Relief Fund have enabled organizations to do even more for our communities and those in need. In May, UWGLA gave grants to El Centro de Ayuda, Central City Neighborhood Partners and Mexican American Opportunity Foundation. Those grants helped transform the annual VITA program into a virtual resource to assist families during the pandemic. 

El Centro de Ayuda

One of these grantees, Boyle Heights-based social service agency El Centro de Ayuda, was established in 1981 and has been helping families with taxes through VITA for the past decade. When the concept of VITA was first explained to El Centro’s staff of social workers they were surprised to think of tax preparation as social work. “The room got quiet, and they said, ‘are you kidding me?’” said executive director Raul Estrada.   

In the first year of VITA services, El Centro helped with 38 tax returns. That number doubled in the second year, and by year three it became a vital component of their programming. El Centro now weaves financial counseling into every service that they provide. As Raul puts it, finances are “one of the biggest stresses that our families face.” He identifies conversations with families about finance as critical to helping them “thrive academically, financially and emotionally.”

“VITA is one of the largest anti-poverty initiatives in the US,” Raul said. “Families submit a tax return, and it puts money back in their pockets in just an hour. No other program gives families accessibility in that quick time frame.”

UWGLA helps El Centro step up

The value of VITA services is higher than ever right now. “Many people in our families were laid off,” said Raul. “We also have a record number of students defer college admissions after years of hard work.”

Balancing urgency and safety, El Centro created virtual options for its clients, but also kept in-person appointments, as many of the families they serve lack access to the internet and computers.

The Pandemic Relief Fund grant enabled El Centro to institute the new virtual VITA service. “United Way funnels out-of-box thinking and creativity, and now the city looks to us to help them navigate through systems change, ” Raul said. “The partnership allows us to do things we’ve never done, to reinvest in the community, and we can help families at a new level.” 

In addition to the grant, UWGLA gave El Centro personal protective equipment for the safety of families and staff to continue in-person services. 

United Way helped identify and secure student volunteers from Los Angeles CIty College to meet the increased demand. 

To date this year, El Centro has served 923 families with VITA services, up from 650 in 2019. Including 223 virtual families as well as 700 in person.

Collectively, this puts hundreds of thousands of dollars that people have already earned back into our local economy. It helps keep these families stable during the especially challenging times. 

El Centro and other groups can take further advantage of the opportunity to connect with families for VITA services by helping them access health care through Medi-cal and food for their children through Cal-Fresh, as well as emergency supportive resources such as clothing, food, and household essentials. 

Financial literacy

El Centro provides services through a cultural lens. They value the trust the organization builds with families. “Talking about finances is not common in Latino communities,” said Raul. “We are now having conversations that we never had before.”

Raul is frustrated by the “unhealthy and false narrative that low income and people in poverty don’t know how to manage money or plan for the future.” He said, “we invest in families because we know that they know best. It’s amazing how much our families do with so little.”

VITA is an entryway to financial conversations. When families find that they qualify for CalEITC, there is an opportunity to have conversation on how to effectively use and save money.

“They trust organizations like ours and that’s where these conversations become fruitful,” said Raul. “It’s not just getting taxes done and leaving. It’s having the conversation that leads to coaching and financial capability.”

Many families who had financial coaching before COVID were grateful to have the tools to get them through the crisis. While others have reached out for help in recent months. “We know that we can’t coach people during a crisis but help get them stable,” said Raul. “Once they’re stable we coach them to dream big.”

Helping one family at a time

Each of the 923 returns El Centro submitted represents a family of struggling Angelenos. Here are a few of their stories.

After 6-months of unemployment, single mother Allison had finally secured a job at Guerilla Tacos at the end of 2019. Because of the pandemic she was laid-off, using Calfresh and LAUSD meals to feed her kids. She is still waiting for an unemployment award letter, but her tax return will help her to pay back rent. El Centro is ready to help her with employment and career advising support. 

Oscar, a Certified Nursing Assistant who supports a family of five, was laid off in March. He filed his taxes and the EITC helped him with utilities and rent. He also recently received his United States citizenship, and he hopes it helps with employment in the future—and sets an example for his children that with hard work you can accomplish what you set out to do. 

Julio is a construction worker with a family of five. He hasn’t been able to work since April and has exhausted the family savings to stay on top of their bills. His immigration status prevents him from qualifying for EDD benefits but his tax return has given him the flexibility to have money for the household during these uncertain times. Julio was proud to see his oldest daughter graduate from CSU Fullerton this summer, and looks forward to watching her pursue her Master’s degree this fall. 

free tax prep la 2020Helping filers get filed before the July 15 deadline