One of the most effective ways to combat wealth disparities is simplifying our convoluted tax code. That is no easy task for any non-profit, no matter the size. However, providing free tax assistance and accounting advice to those who don’t have it readily available is something anyone can do! One of our funded Safety Net partners, Metropolitan Family Service-CASH Oregon, offers a way to equalize access to tax refunds and financial knowledge through volunteer programs. This nonprofit provides tax credit outreach and free tax preparation for people across the state of Oregon, as well as offering courses to train volunteers in tax preparation. The group has been consistently charging headfirst into a fight against the privilege that comes with understanding our intentionally overcomplicated tax system. In the challenging 2020 tax year alone the group recovered over $8 million for 4,000 families across the state.

“Access to these resources is critical in helping lower income households,” said Riley Eldredge, Director of MFS-CASH Oregon. “The problem is these resources are hidden behind a firewall: the tax return process itself. It’s confusing, overwhelming, intimidating and almost exclusively available in English. We want to combat that and provide comprehensive, free, culturally responsive services.”

With funding from United Way of the Columbia-Willamette through our Safety Net program, the group has been focused on retrofitting their process through an equity focused lens, as well as increasing their capacity to handle the high demand of their services. Throughout the pandemic, however, this has become increasingly difficult. A “perfect storm” of complications has left MFS-CASH Oregon struggling to keep up with increased need, decreased volunteers, virtually assisting people and extra complications to the tax filing process. Things like the economic impact payments, expanded access to the Child Tax Credit and changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit have been a lifeline to struggling families during the pandemic, but this help comes with the caveat of a more difficult to optimize tax return.

“It’s been a storm of increased complications and increased demand for the services,” said Matt Bartolotti, Chief Strategy Officer at MFS-CASH Oregon. “We had a lot of interest from houseless community members that needed to file, who hadn’t before because they weren’t earning income.”

Changes to the Child Tax Credit, like families being able to receive it in monthly installments instead of just one lump sum, have been beneficial according to MFS-CASH Oregon. But it’s also a double-edged sword, further complicating the return process. This, on top of the fact they’ve seen a 70 percent decrease in volunteer availability during the pandemic, has left the group searching for creative solutions.

“[The Child Tax Credit] is one of the most powerful antipoverty tools we have out there in the U.S., there are incredible benefits for families that do receive help,” said Eldredge. “But it’s a foreign language in itself, even for a native English speaker it’s almost incomprehensible.”

“[The Child Tax Credit] is one of the most powerful antipoverty tools we have out there... But it’s a foreign language in itself, even for a native English speaker."
“The traditional metric for success is how many tax returns did we do in a year, but that doesn’t get down to the level of demystifying the tax code for people and the empowerment that brings.”
Riley Eldredge, Director of MFS-CASH Oregon

As 2022 kicked off, the group was ready to reopen in person tax preparation sites (which can be found across the state, usually), but the Omicron variant pushed them back toward virtually assisting their clients as tax season ramped up. They’ve built out what is essentially a mini online university to help train new volunteers, and plan on making the system available to other Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) groups throughout the state. Anyone with the wherewithal can complete the course, which takes about 40 hours, and be ready to demystify taxes for their community.  They often train former CPAs, retirees, students, folks who have received tax preparation assistance themselves and anyone interested in challenging themselves with the logic puzzle that is our tax code. Their volunteer pool speaks 26 languages, and the group partners with the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (another frequent partner of United Way of the Columbia-Willamette) to provide on the spot interpretation.

“We have to train them to pass an IRS test at the end of the day. It’s an intensive thing to learn about, but it’s really empowering for a lot of our volunteers. I look at the student populations who get interested and take the course, they get hands on knowledge, a great assessment whether they want to do this in the future, and they get to give back to their community,” Eldredge continued. “The traditional metric for success is how many tax returns did we do in a year, but that doesn’t get down to the level of demystifying the tax code for people and the empowerment that brings.”

Access to trained volunteers doesn’t do enough to tackle the problem MFS-CASH Oregon is combatting though. The group received over 22,000 calls during 2021, and was able to address 4,000 of those. Eldredge and Bartolotti both see an opportunity for local and state governments to partner with organizations like theirs and help address this overt need for tax preparation assistance. They’re also championing a bill in Oregon, HB 4117, that will provide funding to culturally specific and responsive organizations, tribal governments and under-resourced rural community organizations seeking to provide tax navigation to Oregonians. This bill is supported by United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. MFS-CASH Oregon has been actively working on the concept underpinning this bill for two years, and is excited to have Representative Ricki Ruiz leading the legislative charge on it.

“Pretty much anyone you talk to has an understanding on how this is related to anti-poverty work,” Bartolotti said. “Last year we didn’t have a champion for this in the way we do with Representative Ruiz.”

Despite the struggle the pandemic has brought, Bartolotti and Eldredge are proud of the work they’ve done to keep building wealth for Oregonians who need it the most.

“It’s been a painful process, but it has given us tools to have a more comprehensive and powerful way to engage with people who need our services,” Eldredge concluded.

Learn more about what MFS-CASH Oregon does, and how United Way of the Columbia-Willamette supports them as a Safety Net partner, on their website.