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UWBA’s Free Tax Help: over 20 years of delivering tangible results.

April 25, 2022

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Colleen Smallfield, Senior Director of Free Tax Help, shares the history, ethos and importance of UWBA’s Free Tax Help


As we reflect on our past century of impact and look ahead to our next 100 we see how clearly financial stability is a pillar to helping us fight poverty and build a more equitable Bay Area. United Way Bay Area’s Free Tax Help produces tangible results to help build financial stability for our communities. Echoes of the beginnings of what is now known as the Bay Area’s Free Tax Help Coalition are still a part of our program today.

Founded in the early 2000’s in Oakland, the coalition builds on the IRS’s 50-year program, VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. In the early years of the United Way Bay Area (UWBA) Tax program, a coalition of elected officials and organizations, headed primarily by Black women and people of color, came together to build a network of free tax help sites and resources to ensure that Federal resources, like the Earned Income Credit and tax refunds, were delivered back to communities who needed them most. In the twenty years since its inception, the coalition has brought back nearly $1 billion to our neighbors throughout the Bay Area.

Early leaders met in Congresswomen Barbara Lee’s office, and moved to the United Way Bay Area office in Oakland when interest in joining the planning efforts outgrew the space; many of those early organizations continue to provide free tax services today. In the early years, the coalition prepared hundreds of returns, and today, Bay Area Free Tax Help sites help tens of thousands of clients each year. After the program’s first year in Alameda County, San Francisco County came on board the following year, and subsequently grew to include all of the Bay Area counties that UWBA serves. Today, UWBA leads one of the largest tax coalitions in the country and provide coaching and technical assistance to programs throughout the State and Country.

Today, the founders’ commitment to a community-led coalition is still part of the ethos of the Free Tax Help Program. Community leaders knew that bringing back direct cash assistance, through refunds and tax credits, would have a direct and positive impact on Bay Area communities, and specifically for children and families who have been impacted systemically. Today we continue to advocate for policies like the expanded Child Tax Credit and California’s Young Child Tax Credit. We support and encourage free tax help sites in many iterations, from community churches to large social service agencies, from drop-in DIY sessions led by volunteers in public libraries to large-scale, nationwide efforts like GetYourRefund.org  We believe this is what has allowed our coalition to thrive, and remain nimble, effective, and efficient while also providing the highest quality free services to our communities and our clients as we can.

While speaking with one of our longtime site coordinators, Jacqueline Jacobs of Alameda County Social Services Agency, on why she continues to do this work, she quoted Shirley Chisholm, “’Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.’” It’s a sentiment I know well, I have a similar quote attributed to Marian Wright Edelman above my desk. At theheart of our coalition, and inside all of our community led organizations, is a network of dedicated volunteers motivated by service, the desire to meet and serve their neighbors, to solve problems, and to help others through a process that is often described to being akin to death in both its inevitably and emotionally, in anxiety and fear. The energy, care, and attention that our volunteers bring to their work is so critical to our impact, clients come year after year and want to work with same volunteer, to speak their native language, to connect with others who have had a similar economic situation, to understand their tax return and how they may improve their financial situation in the coming year.

In the early years of the program, volunteers prepared simple returns for clients, many with a single W2. Today, making ends meet has become more complex, and in turn, our volunteers complete much more complicated tax returns while also helping clients navigate various bureaucracies. Last year, roughly 1 in 10 of our taxpayers filed a tax return with income from self-employment or Gig economy work, which requires more training and detailed recordkeeping. Many of our sites also help clients apply for Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers which allow clients without Social Security Numbers to file taxes, which is an incredibly important part of the program and saves clients sometimes thousands of dollars in fees.

Even before the pandemic, the Bay Area was and is a place where deep economic disparities by race continue to persist. Every day, our tax sites and volunteers work directly with clients to ensure that they access Federal and State dollars that are owed to them, that will help provide safety and stability, and ideally a foothold into a more just job or more equitable housing. Tax refunds, 80% of which are spent locally, pay for critical needs like food, medicine, healthcare, and transportation, but also for things that provide joy, like celebratory dinners and children’s birthday parties. During the pandemic, aided by Federal and Golden State Stimulus dollars, many of our clients were able to increase savings and prepare for uncertainty. Expansion of programs like the Federal and State EITC, along with the Child Tax Credit and California’s Young Child Tax Credit, are hopefully only the beginning steps we take in creating a more just and equitable economy for all.

Thank you to Carole Watson, Pat Constantine, Jacqueline Jacobs, and Deb Torres for speaking with me and sharing their stories, all of our fantastic volunteers for their dedication, and to our clients who trust us with their financial and personal lives each season.

To support UWBA’s innovative programs like the Free Tax Help program, donate here