Helping the Needy Crack the Tax Code; for Some Families, a Refund Means Food and Shelter. Too Many Don't Know How to Claim What's Theirs

By Burke, Bob | Newsweek, April 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Helping the Needy Crack the Tax Code; for Some Families, a Refund Means Food and Shelter. Too Many Don't Know How to Claim What's Theirs


Burke, Bob, Newsweek


Byline: Bob Burke, Burke lives in Chicago.

I was fresh out of college and working as a finance consultant in 1994 when I volunteered for my firm's tutoring-and-mentoring program at Holy Family School on Chicago's impoverished West Side. I coached a fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team, but I felt that there was only so much I could do to truly help my kids. Without money to buy food or clothing or sometimes even to keep the heat on, the families in the neighborhood faced a daily struggle that weighed heavily on the children.

One day I had an idea. I knew the federal government had tax credits to ease the burden on working-poor families, but the process for claiming these credits was simply too complicated for most to get the assistance they had coming. I came up with a plan: I would gather a group of business professionals to offer free tax-preparation services. We'd meet at the school on Saturday mornings and get the word out in the community that we were there to help. That December, I spent my two-week vacation scouring the office for volunteers.

The first Saturday we met was rough. The heat went out at the school, so we moved everyone away from the windows to keep them warm. Despite the cold, an amazing thing happened. When the morning was over, the nearly 30 volunteers who had come out agreed that it was one of the most rewarding experiences they had ever had. I can still recall a co-worker's telling me that she could not believe how courageous the families she met were--one woman was working for about $14,000 a year, sending her kids to a local Catholic school to keep them safe and managing a household without a father.

Volunteers for other worthy organizations use their brawn to paint a school or install new playground equipment; I simply asked mine to sit, paper and pencil in hand, across the table from a family in need. In the process, they learned about those they were helping--what the parents did for a living, how many kids they had.

After about an hour, these volunteers usually had the pleasant task of informing a hardworking, low-income family that they would receive thousands of dollars back from the Internal Revenue Service. All that without a commercial tax-preparation service's taking out a big chunk.

I vividly remember when a single mother of two, who hadn't earned enough in three years to file a return, burst into tears when I told her that the IRS had withheld too much from her paychecks and owed her $10,000. …

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