New Tax Infrastructure Program Increases Confidence and Refunds for Young Oregonians

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Self-sufficiency programs reach out to youth to help in filing their taxes and getting refunds

The Oregon Department of Human Services’ Tax Infrastructure Program is the department’s newest Self-Sufficiency Program. As the name suggests, the program is designed to help people be more self-sufficient when it comes to filing their taxes. Besides providing grants to community-based organizations that offer free tax preparation, it also helps young people file their taxes with the overall goal of making sure they get the tax refunds and credits they are eligible for.

The most recent data shows that Oregon is dead last in the country for uptake of the Earned Income Tax Credit – a successful, permanent anti-poverty program in the United States. And many young people don’t file, missing out on refundable credits and not their excess withholding taxes back. This is money left on the table.

“When we started this program, it was aimed at families, because there are so many credits available for them. But I knew that we wouldn’t be able to reach everyone, so we need to, in a sense, grow independent tax filers, and young people were the easiest target. They are digital natives with fairly simple returns and they are easily reached through the school system. We take advantage of the easy-to-use IRS-approved software and facilitate groups of youth as they walk through it themselves. Once they are done, they are so happy with their refunds and confident they could do it again next year on their own, and they tell their friends how easy it was, too! Kids don’t know they can file taxes and get money back. Their withholding is almost always enough to get them a refund. We know that filing taxes is not an easy door to figure out, so they need some help,” Meg Reinhold, Program Coordinator for the Tax Infrastructure Program, said.

After testing these ‘Do It Yourself Tax Clinics’ last spring, it became clear to Reinhold that she couldn’t be everywhere to run these clinics. So, this spring she started testing a stipend program for high school teachers to run in their schools. There are now seven urban, suburban and rural high schools participating from districts with significant populations of students eligible for free and reduced-priced meals.

“The teachers are happy to be able to do this. They know how much the students are benefiting from getting their withholding back. I’ve been visiting some of the clinics and one student got $1,246 back in just withholding. But even if it’s $90, the students are happy. And now they know how to do it themselves. It’s empowering,” she said.

Reinhold’s enthusiasm for helping young people and others get free tax filing help can be heard as she talks about the programs now offered through the SSP program.

“And for the older youth we work with, even with very low incomes, their refunds are really impactful. Just this year, the refunds we are getting for young people experiencing homelessness are between $488 and $11,079, which was for a young family with kids with only $15,000 of income. It can change their lives – and the money goes right back into the community,” she said.

Reinhold has helped expand free tax filing throughout Oregon and has gone beyond just having volunteers doing the work. When the outreach started, they were limited to volunteer tax preparers, which wasn’t going to get the volume needed, particularly because she wanted to expand to year-round services.

“So, we created a program using student interns. We have more than 80 high school, community college and university business, accounting and finance students preparing returns for the first time this year,” she said.

The student interns are paid $15 an hour for four hours of work a week for 10 weeks. They get 40 hours of paid training up front and are offered 40 hours of additional training for free when they finish. This additional training is unpaid, but after completion they are eligible to take the Certified Tax Preparer Exam. There are employers statewide – from the big accounting firms to smaller offices – ready to hire these students as soon as they pass the exam. Some college donor groups are offering $1,000 stipends for students who take the extra training and pass the exam because the need is so great.

It is also hoped that these young people can spread their expertise to their families and friends and in the long run, they will continue to be tax paying Oregonians.

Here are some examples of how this SSP program has helped young people:

  • A 25-year-old woman with a three-year-old child made about $20,000 last year. Through this program, she got free tax filing help and $9,000 back. She plans to use the money to move out of her parents’ house and into her own apartment.
  • A woman had three young children who were all born at home. She didn’t have birth certificates or Social Security cards. The program helped her get these documents and she can now apply for the child tax credits, including the credits from the past three years.

The Tax Infrastructure Program includes pilots and free tax clinics, including:

  • Youth Experiencing Homelessness Clinics in Beaverton, Bend, Hillsboro and Portland. Refunds have ranged from $488 to $11,079.
  • High School Do-It-Yourself Tax Clinics which funds grants for stipends to 13 teachers at seven high schools to run the clinics. The students are trained to prepare their own taxes so they can share their knowledge with family and friends. School Districts include: Bend, Dallas, Portland, Mapleton, Salem-Keizer, Oregon City and Greater Albany. The refunds have ranged from $93 to $1,246.
  • Spanish Language Virtual Filing Partnership Pilot with CASH Oregon, Portland and Centro de Services Para Campesinos, Woodburn. All appointments are via Zoom. Staff from Centro verify identification, ensure clients have all documentation before their online appointment and provide translation services.
  • Pop-Up Spanish Language VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) Site Pilot brings together Oregon State University and Centro. Free pop-up sites are offered during the tax season and throughout the summer at Centro in Woodburn. OSU students come to Woodburn and provide free tax preparation with Centro staff coordinating appointments and providing translation services.
  • VITA Tax Preparation Sites in Portland, Beaverton, Corvallis, Monmouth, Eugene, Bend, Newport, South Bend, Roseburg and Medford, along with the Warms Springs Community Action Team and the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, are using grant funds to provide free tax preparation, including prior year returns, to low-income families. The number of sites has doubled since last year.

For more details, see our handout: “Awesome Things About the Tax Infrastructure Program.”

If you are interested in setting up free tax clinic for youth, or are an organization that would like to learn more or have other questions, please email Meg Reinhold.

For free tax preparation help, please contact 211info.

About Author

Christine Decker is a Public Affairs Specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services. Before working in communications she was a working journalist.

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