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Where one woman’s search for free tax help led her

Life as a military spouse is hard. It gets even harder when you receive word that you will soon be referred to as a former military spouse, because your soldier will not be coming home. Next comes the folded flag, and the Gold Star. The refrigerator full of casseroles from well-meaning family members. And the unanswerable questions from the children that will always bear a resemblance to the love that you have lost.

Can you imagine, at a time like that, having to figure out how to get your taxes prepared? Or that the preparation will cost $200? An amount completely unaffordable when your four children now only have one income to depend on.

That was the case for one client that turned to a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site supported by the United Way of Williamson County in Round Rock, Texas. The volunteer preparers listened with sympathy to the predicament of the widowed mother of four, and prepared her complicated taxes at no charge.

Because, that’s what VITA does. IRS-certified volunteers take the time to get to the know the clients that walk through the door, and accurately prepare their returns for free. Most VITA clients earn an annual household income of less than $40,000, and come from traditionally hard-to-reach and underserved communities, including people with disabilities, the elderly and Native Americans. Often clients are able to access critical working family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit, allowing them to keep more of what they earn.

Two weeks ago, funding for VITA was under threat in the on-going Congressional appropriations process. The subcommittee with jurisdiction over funding the program had slashed the amount from its current $15 million to just $7.5 million.

This year, thousands of VITA volunteers prepared millions of returns, resulting in $2 billion brought back to local communities. Approximately 380 United Ways fund, operate or support VITA sites—and as a network, we invest $17.4 million in VITA and other free tax preparation initiatives. As a one-to-one matching grant program, VITA is a model public-private partnership that provides huge returns on investments for individuals and communities. Additionally, VITA has one of the highest accuracy ratings in the country for the preparation of returns that claim the EITC.

Such a cut in funding would have had devastating effects.

But, the United Way network rallied. Throughout the following week, local and state United Ways engaged members of the Appropriations Committee, educating lawmakers on the critical role of VITA in their communities, and asked for restoration of funding.

And we won.

Through collaboration with national partners and allies on Capitol Hill, and engagement on a local level, our message got through. At the next opportunity, the funding for VITA was restored to $15 million. To put that into context, the committee kept $1.3 billion in cuts to other programs.

The appropriations process is far from over, but VITA is in a far better position now. All thanks to what a small number of United Ways were able to accomplish, in one week, about an issue that is so deeply tied to our mission.

If we were able to fight for, and win, $7.5 million in one week—can you imagine what our network of more than 1,100 United Ways could accomplish with sustained robust advocacy? We can.

Do you have an inspiring story of a United Way fighting for every person in their community? We’d love to read them! Leave it in the comments.

Inspired by what you read? Change starts with you. Take action today to make a difference in your community.

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