Bowdoin in the Community: Students File Free Taxes for Locals

Story posted February 21, 2012

No one likes doing taxes, especially college students who have a thousand other ways to fill their time. Yet, between January and mid-April, a group of Bowdoin students has committed to spending three or more hours a week filing tax returns for low-and moderate-income people.

They are part of the CA$H Coalition, a volunteer tax-filing service offered around the country. Maine has nine coalitions, according to Sharon Ross, who leads the Midcoast CA$H Coalition through the Volunteers of America in Brunswick. The CA$H Coalition trains volunteers to provide people who earn under $50,000 with free tax preparation and to help them apply for the earned income tax credit — a credit that many people are eligible for but is not widely known, according to Ross.

“About 8,000 folks in this area qualify,” Ross said, “but only 3% are taking advantage of it.” The average household income for this region, for both individuals and married couples, was $26,000 last year, she added.

Since 2009, when Elaine Tsai ‘10, with help from Kenta Matsumoto ‘10, launched Bowdoin’s CA$H club through the McKeen Center for the Common Good, students have helped thousands of locals get some of their tax money returned. Last year, the Midcoast CA$H Coalition assisted 443 clients, returning $763,000 to them, according to Ross. This year the coalition hopes to reach over 500 people.

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Kelsey Flagg '12 advises a client.

“Since Bowdoin’s been involved, we’ve increased [clients] by 20% each year,” Ross said. The Bowdoin contingent typically makes up one-third to one-half of the volunteer group. This year eight students are volunteering, Ross said, and she has 20 volunteers in all.

[callout title=Bowdoin classes also participate with the CA$H Coalition] Two economics professors have incorporated the volunteer tax-preparation program into their classes, combining service with academic lessons.

Last spring, students in Prof. John Fitzgerald's class "Poverty and Redistribution" split into groups: some students, after completing training, became volunteer tax preparers, while others conducted a survey of the coalition's clients to come up with suggestions for ways the organization could improve. "It’s very satisfying to see people actually apply some of the things we talk about in class. It offers a kind of learning beyond the textbook, particularly for policy. If you work with actual people you see lots of the complications that we, by necessity, strip out when we teach concepts in class," Fitzgerald said. Fitzgerald offered a similar course in 2010.

In the spring of 2009, Economics Chair and Professor Rachel Connelly taught a class, the "Economics of the Family," which partnered with the CA$H program to also train students to help low-income families file their tax returns. Other students in the class performed outreach for the organization. Connelly said the partnership between her class and CA$H enabled her students to directly see how low-income families' choices are constrained and the types of economic decisions they make under these constraints. Plus, she added, her students offered a useful service. [/callout]
Bowdoin senior Amanda Gartside, a math and government major, has been volunteering with the CA$H Coalition since she was a sophomore. To become qualified, she, like other volunteer tax preparers, had to take an online IRS training course over winter break and pass an accreditation exam. Gartside said she undertook the task because she wanted to learn more about the community around her.

“I grew up as a blond in southern California, in the same town since I was three years old,” Gartside said. “I wasn’t exposed to too much, but [through the coalition] I hear all these people’s stories and see the people behind them. It’s given me an appreciation of Brunswick and the community.”

Gartside added that the experience has also helped her connect her government classes to the real world. “It’s been valuable for me to see how laws affect people,” she said. “Whatever’s written into the tax code directly affects people, and a lot of people depend on that money.”

Ross pointed out that the IRS accreditation training can take 12 to 15 hours, not including the exam, and that the coalition asks that volunteers commit to five three-hour sessions. “It is a huge commitment from students, so it’s amazing that students commit to that time on top of their school load,” she said.

Chris Kan ’13, an anthropology and biology major from California, has been involved with Bowdoin’s CA$H club for three years, and has co-led it for two. “It’s a really interesting way to connect with the community,” he said. “It’s put me in touch with the local culture … and helped me build a bond to Maine.”

Talking about people’s personal finances can lead to surprisingly intimate conversations about people’s families, children and struggles, something the student volunteers say they appreciate. “I’ve learned a lot about working with people, because taxes and money in general is a touchy subject for families,” said Kelsey Flagg ‘12, an economics and Spanish major. “I’ve learned how to ask questions about family’s finances and get the information I need to fully fill out tax returns, and sometimes that’s hard.”

At the end of the session, volunteers usually finish on an upbeat note — the announcement of a check coming in the mail. “People tell me, I’m so happy I’m getting this money because now I can pay for my mortgage, or I can get groceries, or get my kids coats,” Kan said.

Bowdoin's CA$H group is one of 28 student service groups that are part of the Bowdoin Volunteer Corps in the McKeen Center.

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