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Taking the long-term view on savings

Context

Goodwill Industries of Tulsa is committed to promoting tax time as an opportunity for taxpayers to build savings. It utilizes many promising practices for increasing saving at tax time , including building commitment among staff and volunteers to encourage saving, making sure tax preparers know how to help consumers save while filing, and offering savings choices more than once at the tax site.

Goodwill Industries of Tulsa offers job training and support services throughout Eastern Oklahoma. Goodwill’s VITA program provides free tax return preparation services in the Tulsa area, typically serving around 500 tax filers annually.

Goodwill Industries of Tulsa is also an innovator. It was an early partner of GetYourRefund.org , the non-profit service built by Code for America in partnership with VITA sites nationwide. GetYourRefund provides a technology platform for preparing tax returns remotely when taxpayers are unable to be physically present at a site. Goodwill Tulsa also offers facilitated self-assistance for taxpayers filing their own returns using OnLine Taxes (OLT) , one of the IRS Free File commercial preparer partners.

Challenge

The 2021 tax filing season was a challenge for all VITA programs, and this extended to tax-time savings work. The return preparation process – from intake to review – was more complicated, placing additional strains on volunteers’ time. Because taxpayer demand for tax preparation services typically exceeded organizational service capacity, there was understandable pressure to complete returns as quickly as possible. This left much less time for the personal engagement throughout the process, which is valuable in successfully promoting savings options.

The Virtual VITA process, facilitated by GetYourRefund and other similar tools, was of great assistance to programs including Goodwill in Tulsa during a period of social distancing, but the remote nature of the interactions with taxpayers limited opportunities to engage with potential savers.

Response

Despite the challenges, Goodwill Industries of Tulsa remained committed to tax-time savings. It worked with GetYourRefund to include savings messaging in the platform. This provided an additional avenue for communications before and during the return preparation process.

Recognizing the tremendous economic strains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Goodwill in Tulsa reached into the community to find residents in need of assistance. This included visits to homeless shelters and community meal programs. People served by these programs are often not a good match for VITA because required documents, including photo identification and Social Security cards, are often among the first things lost or stolen when someone is living on the streets. The additional benefit of the federal Economic Impact Payments (EIPs), however, had the potential to address critical financial needs during the pandemic.

Results

Using the OLT software, Goodwill in Tulsa was able to help taxpayers experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Most had memorized their Social Security numbers, had smart phones, and quite a few had bank accounts. Not only were they able to file returns to receive EIPs, but those with wage income could get withheld taxes refunded and sometimes claim an Earned Income Tax Credit. The tax program created new relationships with people who may benefit from financial support to gain some economic security.

The immediate results of using savings messaging in the virtual return preparation software were disappointing, but the experience clarified the promising practices of encouraging savings.

Looking Forward

Programs promoting tax-time savings tend to see growing success over time because taxpayers hear a consistent message, year after year, that can become part of their personal financial planning. The pandemic service disruption complicated this process but also underscored the value of taking a long-term view.

Goodwill Industries of Tulsa established new relationships with people experiencing homelessness, planting seeds for financial empowerment. Through its virtual services, the program realized the value of maintaining consistent communication as well as the great benefits from reinforcing text and email messaging with direct taxpayer contact. In the words of program staff: “It is considerably harder to ignore someone who looks like your mother or grandmother saying, face-to-face, ‘you should think about saving some of your refund’.”