News Release: Finance and Economics, Student Life

Apr. 14,  2009

Economics Students Give Volunteer Tax Help

When Emory economics professor David Frisvold began teaching a freshman seminar on the economics of poverty this spring, he decided to offer students a real-life look at the issues by giving them the chance to participate in the country's largest anti-poverty program.

Run by the Internal Revenue Service, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is a massive nationwide volunteer effort that helps low- to moderate-income workers with tax preparation.

"The IRS started this volunteer program because of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which is the largest cash assistance program in the United States," says Frisvold. "If your income is below a certain level, but you are working, you are probably eligible for the refund."

Yet many workers who are due a refund, "aren't aware they qualify and go to tax prep services and get charged money" for preparing their taxes, says Jacob Schapiro of Long Island, N.Y., one of Frisvold's students. Some tax preparation services, taking advantage of their cash-strapped clients, offer instant loans at high interest rates for those who don't want to—or can't—wait for their refund.

Most of the students in Risvold's course completed the IRS training and, working through Emory's Office of University-Community Partnerships, have been helping people with tax preparation at the Agape Community Center in Northwest Atlanta in the days leading up to April 15.

"It's not every day you get to be part of the largest income redistribution program in the country," says Adam McCall of Boston. McCall said he was "surprised how much impact people can have" by volunteering for the program. What did he learn? "There's desperation out there," he says. "Some people make very little money. It's a totally different view of the economy."

For Matthew Jackiewicz, the volunteer program is "an opportunity to help people in a direct and meaningful way." He plans to major in economics and is interested in how economists study poverty and have input on public policy.  He said volunteering to help people with their taxes is an eye-opening experience.

"You get to feel a little bit of their soul," says Jackiewicz. "You're seeing everything in their lives:  their income, their children and family and how they struggle."

Schapiro said being able to learn about the tax system and help people at the same time has been a win-win situation. "I would absolutely consider doing this outside of school," he says. He's looking for other opportunities to volunteer when he returns home for the summer.

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