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Students Provide Free Tax Preparation to Evanston Community

March 25, 2008
Sixteen Northwestern University students began preparing basic tax returns for eligible low-income workers in Evanston and surrounding areas, as part of the National Student Partnerships (NSP)-Evanston program.

Tax preparation takes place at the Evanston One-Stop Center at 1615 Oak St. The service runs through April 15 and is by appointment only.

This is NSP-Evanston's fourth year teaming up with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which is run through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The VITA program offers IRS training and certification to volunteers, who then provide free tax preparation services to community members who earn less than $39,000 a year.

The tax preparation is one of NSP-Evanston's "most sought-after services," said Chris Svendsen, Northwestern senior and local director of NSP.

Volunteers file tax returns electronically, shortening the time clients will wait to receive refunds. Last year, volunteers at NSP filed 135 returns, with an average refund per client of $1,050.

"When we help people with resumes and applying for jobs, we don't get to see the tangible results," said Alexandra Hallas Button, junior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "With the taxes, you can see exactly what they're going to get. Some people get $1,000 back, or $600, and you can see how that affects them right away."

In addition to free tax assistance, the program provides information on financial literacy, including bank accounts, budgeting and credit.

"We talk with them about how they can better use the money they get back, such as saving or paying off credit card debt," said Hallas Button.

Many taxpayers eligible for the VITA program are also eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a refundable tax credit that reduces or eliminates the taxes paid by low-income working people.

"Our knowledge and assistance with the Earned Income Tax Credit is especially useful," said Svendsen. "Combined with the financial literacy training we offer, it really makes a difference in the lives of our clients."

"You can really help people get the money that they deserve from the government," said Hallas Button. "We can do this for free -- if you go to somewhere else, you might pay $50, which is a lot of money for some people."

NSP-Evanston is a local chapter of National Student Partnerships, a national service organization. Volunteers at colleges and universities across the country work one-on-one to help community members find housing and employment, in addition to providing other social services. Over 50 volunteers are active in the Evanston branch, and 16 of those participate in the tax preparation program.

(Lauren Knight is a junior in the Medill School of Journalism)