Shortly after I posted this piece about IRS cutting ties with ACORN, I received an email asking me, among other things, if I thought this was a good thing and if we should “get rid” of the VITA program altogether because of the potential for giving bad advice. I didn’t immediately respond to the email because I wanted to give it some thought. And then I thought it that it might my response be worth sharing. So here’s my take on the whole mess:
I absolutely think that the IRS decision to cut ties with ACORN’s VITA program was a good one. But not because a couple of folks gave bad tax advice – if that were the criteria, there are quite a number of tax preparers that would be out of a job. Rather, it’s because I share Commissioner Shulman’s concern that: [i]t is absolutely critical that taxpayers have trust in our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program partners. I don’t think that’s the case right now – and that’s why stepping away was a good thing.
As to the question of whether the VITA program should be canned altogether – I couldn’t be more vehement that I think that’s a terrible idea. The implication in the email was that the population which is being served might have “complicated” tax issues that can’t be properly addressed by volunteers; the further implication was that those tax issues might be related to fraud.
I understand where that’s coming from because I saw the video and it was distressing to see that the ACORN staffers didn’t even flinch at some of the information delivered by the potential “taxpayers.” But that shouldn’t be interpreted as the norm.
A little explanation about VITA may be in order. First of all VITA, which stands for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, offers free tax help to low- to moderate-income taxpayers. Being poor or living paycheck to paycheck isn’t a crime. Don’t be misled by a staged video (and yes, while I think the reaction was terrible, the video was clearly a set up) to believe that the only folks who would seek free tax help are those who want to commit fraud. These are people, for the most part, who want to pay their taxes. They want to be compliant.
Last year, VITA volunteers prepared 2.8 million tax returns, or about 2% of the total individual returns filed. These taxpayers were seniors, students, single parents… It well could have been you and I. They were also military – the military has a very active VITA program. Our Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force and National Guard – and their families – can get free tax assistance from volunteers who understand issues that matter to military personnel, like combat zone tax benefits, through VITA.
So the market that VITA serves is broad base that includes many, many good people. I can’t stress enough how unfair it would be to assume that those seeking free help are cheats.
As far as the character and competence of the volunteers go, I can speak to that firsthand. For years, I helped coordinate the VITA site at our local senior center. The volunteers at our center were first rate – many were actually tax attorneys, accountants and tax preparers who just wanted to give something back to the community. Others were retirees, engineers, students, bankers… you name it. Just good folks who gave up their time to help other people. Those folks received training which generally included how to prepare returns, new developments (like the rebate checks from last year) in tax law that affect taxpayers, and how to use the IRS tax prep software – there’s even a test! Additionally, there are supervisors on site to help out with more difficult questions – and hotlines to call when there are problems.
It’s a really wonderful program. Are there problems? Of course there are. Do folks occasionally screw up? Sure. Does that happen almost anywhere? Absolutely. I dare you to find one tax prep service that has never, ever made a mistake. You can’t.
I would encourage you to find out more about VITA if you have questions – and perhaps even become a volunteer. Don’t let some edited video and some bad behavior by ACORN color your impression of the more than 100,000 people who show up every tax season to try and do the right thing.