Northside Common Ministries and United Way offering free tax prep assistance to low-income families during tax season
By: Neil Strebig
The Northside Common Ministries (NSCM) in conjunction with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, will be offering free in-person tax preparation services for low-income households throughout the Northside.
This marks the fifth year the NSCM has partnered with United Way and their Free Tax Prep Program.
According to NSCM executive director Jay Poliziani, last year the NSCM site was able to refund nearly $55,000 to families. “It relieves a huge burden for them,” said Poliziani.
The program is offered at 27 sites, in five counties throughout Southwestern PA including 19 in Allegheny County. Households making up to $66,000 annually may qualify for the free services.*
“It’s great. We get a lot of stories from families thanking us that this program exists. A lot of families’ use the savings refund for rent and or [their] utilities,” said United for Families program manager, Kiandra Foster.
In 2017, the program had 457 IRS-certified and trained volunteers throughout Southwestern PA prepare over 10,000 tax returns contributing to over $1.7 million in refunds. According to Foster the services helped provide significant returns for over 200 families in Allegheny County last year, yielding approximately $200,000 in refunds.
Caitlin Skaff, who has been volunteering at the NSCM since 2015, believes the program is a vital resource for families in need.
“Taxes are something that everyone has to do, regardless of income or whether or not you know how to do taxes. For lower-income families who can’t afford to pay someone to do their taxes … having access to this free service is critical,” said Skaff. “If you only make $10,000 a year having to pay someone $300 to do your taxes is huge. That savings alone can help put groceries on the table or keep the lights on.”
Skaff who works full-time as a grant and resource specialist for United Way of Southwestern PA, described the volunteer training sessions as accessible and informative. Participants will be able to get certified through an online or in-class registration process that is completed once they pass IRS requirements for standards of conduct, interview skills and a basic exam. From there, volunteers will help prepare taxes via TaxSlayer software.
The program also provides assistance for families who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is an anti-poverty program that, according to Foster, many low-income households qualify for but are unaware of and often do not receive the monetary reimbursement that should be accredited towards their annual refund. The program is designed to ensure qualified households receive their ETIC and a fair return, which can be upwards of $6,000.
“Helping families who may not know about the EITC credits – and other credits – could mean thousands of dollars back in their pockets. Which means they can now afford to pay their rent, fix a broken vehicle, [or] pay for childcare,” said Skaff.
Both Skaff and Poliziani admitted that while the Free Tax Prep Program is an important asset for low-income families ultimately, seeing fewer families in-need would be a positive sign. However, both acknowledged that isn’t necessarily the case at this moment in time. Until then both are committed and eager to continue helping in any capacity they can within the Free Tax Prep Program.
“As a volunteer, I didn’t go into this thinking that by doing taxes for a family this year, that it would help them not need or qualify for EITC in the future, and I hope to not see them next year,” said Skaff. “But if it sets them on a path to improve their life circumstances because they receive the tax credit and have the opportunity to learn about services in the community – either through 211 or the tax site – then that is important.”
This year tax preparation services at NSCM will be held Wed. and Thurs. from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Interested parties can schedule an appointment by dialing 2-1-1 or online at pa211sw.org.
*Households making up to $54,000 annually qualify for in-person tax services; households making up to $66,000 qualify for free online tax assistance.
Article was last updated on January 25 at 9:20 a.m.