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Low-income families can get help on finances Program includes aid in tax preparation

A coalition of community groups, housing advocates and government agencies is hosting a daylong "financial wellness" program for low-income families next week, offering free tax preparation and information about free services for the poor.

The program Saturday at the Buffalo Convention Center is aimed at families and individuals with incomes of less than $39,000, who qualify for the federal and state earned income tax credits.

It's sponsored by the Economic Self-Sufficiency Coalition, the United Way and the office of Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, along with the Internal Revenue Service. More than 60 local groups, agencies, schools, banks and other organizations are participating and offering assistance to those who attend.

Coordinators view it as a one-stop shopping opportunity for low-income people to make sure all their financial needs are met, especially since many don't have cars and therefore may have limited access to transportation to get around.

"If we could do this all in one day, have multiple resources that could be helpful to these families under one roof, then we make it easier for these families to access these services," said Arlene F. Kaukus, president of United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.

"It really recognizes that so many of the issues that families face are very complicated issues and really do require lots of agencies, organizations and levels of government."

The broad one-day effort is centered around free tax services, and represents the launch of the Economic Self Sufficiency Coalition's annual free-tax preparation campaign, which lasts from Jan. 22 to April 17.

Indeed, there will be 36 tax screening and preparation stations on Saturday. And more than 60 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites throughout Erie County -- including 12 in Buffalo sponsored by the Coalition -- will offer free tax work for the next three months.

The rest of the 60 VITA and related sites in the county are sponsored by other groups, like AARP's national Tax-Aide Program, which has 75 sites and 600 volunteers throughout Western New York. Some target elderly, disabled and non-English-speaking taxpayers.

Last year, VITA programs in Upstate New York handled almost 70,000 returns, compared with nearly 59,000 in 2004. In Erie County, about 350 volunteers filed 8,230 returns last year.

"It helps us kickoff the season," said Lauren Breen, coordinator of the Coalition, and a clinical law professor at University at Buffalo Law School. "It publicizes the opportunity to have your taxes prepared by a certified IRS tax preparer for free."

The goal of the Coalition's campaign is not only to do taxes for low-income people at no charge, but also to help them file for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a state and federal benefit for the working poor. In New York, the combination now yields as much as $5,897. And unlike most credits, it's also refundable so it can provide a much needed injection of cash.

But according to the IRS, about 25 percent of those who are eligible for the EITC never file for it. And many low-income people who go to a paid tax preparer instead of a free site end up taking out a costly refund anticipation loan whose fees eat up their money. That's what the Coalition wants to prevent.

For the 2004 tax year, there were more than 59,000 returns in Erie County that obtained $133 million in federal and state EITC refunds, but many were at paid preparers and involved loans. Last year, free Coalition sites did 9,162 returns for $12 million in tax refunds for low-income clients.

"Our goal is to make sure we get those credits back into the community," said Dietra D. Grant, Upstate territory manager for taxpayer education at the IRS, which is part of the Coalition and supports VITA sites.

But the first annual Family Financial Wellness Day goes beyond taxes to feature 75 information tables on issues ranging from applying for government benefits, like Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) aid, to getting free life insurance, free healthcare and help with health insurance.

Food, housing counseling, and clothing agencies will also be present. Daycare and childcare information is available, as is a loan program for qualified borrowers to buy used cars to get to work. And there's information about education, employment and training opportunities, as well as city and county services.

"There are lots of opportunities for people to learn of other services they may be eligible for," Breen said. "That's one of the wonderful things about a free tax preparation site. It's getting people in there to find out about other programs as well."

Breen said many low-income people go to paid tax preparers like H&R Block or Jackson-Hewitt because they don't have a bank account, either because of a poor history of bouncing checks or because they don't trust banks. So the fastest way for them to get money is a refund anticipation loan.

But with a bank account, refunds can be direct-deposited within days of filing electronically. This year, the IRS will even start allowing people to split their refund into more than one account, such as between savings and checking.

So M&T Bank, HSBC Bank USA and KeyBank will be present Saturday to discuss how bank accounts work, how to manage them and how much they cost. At some free tax sites, the banks will open accounts.

Saturday's program will also use the "self-sufficiency calculator." That's an online feature that lets a client enter all of their monthly income sources and expenses, see if there's a gap, and identify resources such as food stamps, child care benefits or the earned income tax credit that could close the gap.

The calculator doesn't keep information, but screens who might be eligible for benefits.

The free program will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. No pre-registration is necessary. Organizers encourage attendees to bring photo identification and all necessary income and expense papers for taxes.


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