In Focus: Our Work in the Income Issue Area.

Report from Xavier Ramey, Senior Manager of Community Investment – Income, United Way of Metropolitan Chicago

For many people, tax preparation is just another thing on the list. But for folks in communities like Brighton Park, it can be a scary and confusing process. Filers come into our new tax site for many reasons, and often with considerable apprehension.

An immigrant day laborer who has an ITIN instead of a Social Security number may be afraid that because he is an immigrant that he cannot file taxes without getting into trouble with USCIS…an unemployed grandmother who is unsure if her disability or social security check will be taxed may already be unable to make ends meet taking care of several grandchildren…a disabled 60-year old man taking care of his 97-year old mother might be living on less than $8,000 per year…a 20 year old who works selling cellphones might have been laid off after the holidays, but still comes in smiling and asking about joining a financial literacy class that our partners at Center for Economic Progress offers all clients.

All are welcome at the Brighton Park tax site that United Way has founded in Shields Middle School. They get their taxes done accurately by a caring volunteer staff. A CPA volunteers his time to oversee our site and ensure taxes are prepared correctly. A recent college grad scans forms and organizes completed returns as she makes small talk with clients. An elderly woman, and prior client, assists those in need by explaining away the fear in tax liabilities every Tuesday night after she finishes work. It’s a beautiful thing.

As a volunteer, certified, tax preparer at our new site, and as the leader of the UWMC Income strategy, spending an evening every week doing this work is beyond rewarding. The perception I hear often is that low income people are waiting for handouts; that they are not hard-working, or choose not to work. But I can’t tell you how many tax returns I’ve done for people who come in with a W-2 and an unemployment form. A man who hands me a crumpled envelope with nine W-2s and can still laugh that he makes only half the wages of the federal poverty line is one of many victims of the stagnant economy. This tax site is a humbling place to be. Considering the responsibility we have at United Way to change these stories, and to empower the haves to understand their tremendous ability to help out the have-nots, this is the best place to be.

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