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Lower-income filers receive free tax prep

Thousands of families with incomes under $50,000 and individuals under $25,000 have availed themselves of free tax preparation and other financial services since Jan. 23 at sites in seven NCP neighborhoods, four of them co-located with LISC/Chicago Centers for Working Families.

The Center for Economic Progress (CEP) runs the 17-year-old program, which continues through April 15 at 13 sites total in Chicago and 33 statewide (for a flyer with all the times, dates and locations, please click for English or Espanol). Sites in Albany Park and Humboldt Park are new this year, says OS Owen, training specialist with CEP.

Photo: Ernest Sanders, GADC

In Auburn Gresham, 915 filers had received more than $2 million in returns by March 15.

New benefits available under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a/k/a the stimulus package, include a $400 “Making Work Pay” refundable tax credit, an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to three children covered (up from two), and the fact that the first $2,400 of unemployment assistance is tax-free, Owen says. Unlike past years, clients must bring Social Security cards, he adds.

In addition to tax preparation, those participating at some or all sites are able to open bank accounts or be issued an Advent pre-paid debit card from MasterCard, a new feature for the program. They also can get information on and assistance in filling out financial aid forms for college, identifying their unclaimed property from the state treasurer’s office, and understanding U.S. Census forms.

The Census Funders Initiative “Count Me In” effort at 10 locations is targeted to areas that showed especially low response rates in 2000, which include NCP neighborhoods North Lawndale, Bronzeville, Chicago Lawn and Auburn Gresham, says Scott Stukel, manager of local programs for CEP. Five other NCP communities are participating in Census-related activities (for more on that, please click here).

“We decided to leverage our tax sites in these communities to use them as a way to promote the Census,” he says. “We have 10 staff working, one in each community, to do outreach, speak to people as they come in, address questions and concerns, hand out literature, engage them. It’s simple, grassroots, interpersonal communication.”

Photo: Ernest Sanders, GADC

Tax prep centers are set up in 13 Chicago communities, seven of them NCP neighborhoods, and four of them co-located with LISC/Chicago Centers for Working Families.

Staffers have been hired locally, and they’ve shown “dedication, versatility and intelligence,” Stukel says. “They feel passionately about promoting the Census generally, and promoting the Census with people where they live. It’s helped us overcome cultural issues with the immigrant and refugee community.”

Many Happy Returns
At the St. Sabina Employment Resource Center in Auburn Gresham, 915 filers, nearly half of them single people, had received more than $2 million in tax returns as of March 15, close to the 2009 total of $2.2 million. (For a more detailed story on Auburn-Gresham’s effort, please click here.)

In an adjoining space where clients fill out forms and wait to be seen, CEP and NCP lead agency Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. (GADC) have a chance to do “commercials” about everything from the Census, to the CWF services at St. Sabina, to the 79th Street Festival (which is currently seeking vendors), to the city’s Smart Communities program, also co-sponsored by LISC/Chicago.

Photo: Ernest Sanders, GADC

U.S. Bank, which recently purchased the local Park National Bank, is helping filers in Auburn Gresham open checking and savings accounts.

Ernest Sanders, NCP organizer for GADC, says U.S. Bank – which recently bought the local Park National Bank – is handling the free checking and savings accounts this year. The new Advent card, which has no fees, is available for the first time, and the college financial aid assistance is available for the second year, he says. The CWF has connected with LISC/Chicago’s Elev8 program at Perspectives Charter School to encourage families of students to participate, which has already shown results.

The Census person is there three days per week to educate people, Sanders says. “It’s common in every neighborhood that there’s low participation based on fear that Big Brother will know where you live – because you committed a crime, you owe debt, or you’re an illegal alien,” he says. “We brought on that piece to dismiss the myths and encourage folks to participate.”

The Quad Communities CWF, operated by The Cara Program, saw more than 1,300 people and returned more than $2 million last year, but site manager Adrienne Harrison believes the numbers are down this year, possibly due to unemployment hitting double-digit percentages in the past year.

“I believe those numbers may go up again,” she says. “Some of the people who received unemployment do not know they need to file [returns for] the unemployment compensation they received.”

Photo: Ernest Sanders, GADC

This year's sites are offering free information about the 2010 Census.

National City Bank has opened about two-dozen accounts for people, Harrison says, and the site also provides the Advent card, financial aid help and Census info. “The banks do well at this site,” she says. “The Center is working hard at getting people to save the money and showing them how the money would last a lot longer.”

The CWF at Instituto del Progreso Latino in Pilsen serves about 125 clients per week, estimates director Yesenia Cervantes, offering financial aid help in addition to tax prep services. They’ve welcomed about a dozen parents from Orozco Community Academy, another Elev8 location, after advertising posting flyers and making presentations at parent meetings, she says.

They’ve found many people who stop in aren’t necessarily regular clients of the CWF. “The majority of people, it’s a one-time service. They come in and do their taxes, and they might never come back,” Cervantes says. “We’re making sure people know there’s other services.”

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