When Cynthia went to the free tax preparation site near her house, it was difficult to convince her to take advantage of the services being offered. Cynthia was adamant about using a paid preparer who advertised a $50 bonus. She didn’t trust “free,” and she thought the paid preparer would provide better service. But a couple of days later Cynthia came back to the free tax prep site. She was angry. It turned out the $50 bonus that the paid preparer had advertised came with $600 in fees. Now she’s an advocate for the City’s free tax preparation services, and has referred friends and family members as well.
In her words, “A bonus can cost you!”
According to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data, New Yorkers claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for a cumulative $2.5 billion in refunds. The EITC—one of the greatest tools we have for fighting poverty—gives families and individual tax filers with low- or moderate-incomes sizeable refunds, depending on income level and number of dependents. Research shows that the EITC returns an average of $2,500 to eligible filers in New York City—a significant cash infusion for low-income families. More often than not, a tax refund check is the largest single check these families receive all year. In New York City, most EITC-eligible people are also eligible for free tax preparation through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) network, but fewer than 5 percent take advantage of it. Where are the other 95 percent? And why would anyone opt to spend hundreds of dollars for something that is offered for free at nearly 200 VITA sites citywide?
Clearly there needs to be an improved process for tax filing.
The NYC Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Office of Financial Empowerment has joined forces with Parsons Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Lab, the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), Food Bank For New York City, Citi Community Development, and Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City—to create a new approach to free tax preparation services in New York City. It’s called Designing for Financial Empowerment.
The initiative is composed of three phases: discovery, during which the research team was embedded in the VITA sites and interviewed community members and stakeholders; co-design, where the research team collaborates with users, service providers, government officials, funders, and others to generate ideas to address VITA challenges; and iterative prototyping, in which one or multiple solutions will be rapidly tested at the VITA sites and revised based on user responses.
The discovery phase has already taken place. Researchers interviewed site managers, volunteer tax preparers, filers, and host organizations at VITA sites to learn firsthand about the challenges and capabilities at the sites. They worked closely with project partners to gain a better understanding of tax-related policies, services and interventions.
During this phase, the researchers learned that many filers have a misconception that because VITA services are free they are of lower quality than paid services. Some people also have a misunderstanding about who is responsible if they are audited by the IRS. They believe preparers are responsible for the accuracy of their returns, so they choose whoever promises the largest refund. This could sometimes mean choosing paid preparers for illegal benefits. Some of these opinions are captured in the Designing for Financial Empowerment Tax Time Video.
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The initiative is now in the co-design phase. The design team is bringing together tax filers, policymakers, community and civic leaders, social service organizations, and local business owners, to discuss the discovery findings and co-design potential solutions for new and improved services through a series of workshops. The co-design phase will create the basis for prototypes for VITA sites.
During the final phase, prototypes will be tested at VITA sites run by Food Bank For New York City—a champion of free tax preparation services. The project’s continuous engagement with VITA clients and preparers during this phase will allow designers to make improvements based on the feedback.
The goal is that the prototypes developed by this process will not only help increase filer access at these VITA sites—and trust the services that the sites provide—but also address a capacity problem. Filers often have to wait anywhere from a half hour to several hours to have their taxes prepared. For many of them, taking time off work to wait their turn may be challenging. Moreover, childcare can be costly or unavailable, and bringing children to VITA sites can make it more difficult for filers and others who are waiting.
Although Tax Day has just passed, we’re hopeful that this initiative will help us reach the thousands of New Yorkers like Cynthia, and ensure that they not only take advantage of free tax preparation services, but also receive every dollar they’re eligible for through the Earned Income Tax Credit, NYC Child Care Tax Credit, and other refundable tax credits.