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The Financial Check-Up

Context

The City of Boston offers a wide array of services that can help people recover from economic hardship. Residents need a quick and convenient way to assess their financial needs and get referrals to available resources. The Boston Tax Help Coalition has worked for years to provide the Financial Check-Up, an interview that screens taxpayers for various financial challenges, at its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites. An integral part of the Boston Builds Credit campaign, the check-up serves as a comprehensive version of the kinds of tools VITA programs use to help taxpayers improve their financial well-being, especially those who are not typically in contact with social service networks.

Boston Tax Help Coalition is a partnership of nonprofits, businesses, and community organizations that has been promoting the economic independence of working individuals and families since 2001.

The Financial Check-Up is a pre-filing interview conducted by Boston Tax Help volunteers serving as financial guides. The check-up form is a set of tick boxes that help guide the interview and track outcomes, and the data from the form is generally entered directly into a Customer Relationship Management System. Financial guides discuss options for saving at tax time, and they make referrals to other supporting services, such as legal, debt management, immigration, housing, health care, and employment. Guides can also request and review credit reports and recommend steps to build positive credit histories, improve credit scores, and improve economic well-being. The Financial Check-Up has helped thousands of Bostonians improve their financial situation at tax time.

Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated economic disparities in the Boston area and highlighted the need for access to services and opportunities that empower residents and make savings possible. Many residents, who had never been unemployed, found themselves unable to work to do COVID restrictions or the related economic recession, and in Boston and other cities with high housing costs, a sudden loss of income can be particularly devastating.

The pandemic shift to Virtual VITA, which allowed taxpayers to not be physically present at the tax site, dramatically reduced communication between return preparers and taxpayers. The Financial Check-Up had almost always been conducted in person, and the pandemic disrupted not only tax assistance but also this assessment and referral tool.

Response

Boston Tax Help quickly created a financial check-up process via phone or video conference. This included establishing a virtual Private Branch Exchange (PBX) phone system, so financial guides could conduct the Financial Check-Up from anywhere without sharing their personal telephone numbers. Because social distancing required an enhanced process at intake, financial guides augmented the Financial Check-Up to include an assessment of taxpayer qualification for VITA services and the sufficiency of the documentation needed for return preparation.

Results

Boston Tax Help successfully delivered the Financial Check-Ups remotely. The augmented process to encompass intake also helped ensure that return preparers had all the required documents. Although Boston Tax Help overcame many challenges and completed several hundred Financial Check-Ups, it fell short of its initial goal of 1,000 financial assessments.

The rapid expansion of Virtual VITA proved to be a capacity challenge for the financial guides. Tax law changes during the 2021 filing season required a more extensive intake interview, forcing several process changes. The constant adjustments implemented as a result of the tax law changes caused tax-site coordinators to adapt in order to keep return preparation systems working effectively. This often limited the ability to deliver the assessment.

Looking Forward

Completing the Financial Check-Up by phone or video conference opens new possibilities. Because it can now be done from anywhere or at any time, it can be a viable stand-alone service or one that complements other social service programs offered by coalition members. In the process, financial guides can also deliver other interventions that encourage savings. Equipped with Virtual PBX, guides can also serve as the first point of contact to respond to taxpayer inquiries, helping tax sites to follow up quickly with taxpayers having filing issues. Foreseeing increased service demands, Boston Tax Help plans to increase the number of available financial guides.