UB Students Provide Free Tax Preparation for Low-Income Residents

At 15 Buffalo-area sites, starting this week and running until the April 17 tax deadline, University at Buffalo Law School students will help low-income residents do their taxes and apply for tax credits that can provide a needed boost in annual income.

It's the fifth year that UB law students, as part of a local coalition organized by the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, will go out into the community to provide this free service, joining the United Way and several other organizations in offering financial guidance to those who may not otherwise have access to it. Students and faculty in UB's School of Management this year will be joining the UB outreach effort to help low-income families with the free service, which offers an alternative to the sometimes costly services of national tax-preparation franchises. The coalition also is working with local banks to help families set up checking and savings accounts.

The free service will be available to individuals and families with an annual income below $39,000. For a complete list of sites where it will be provided, go to the Web site of the Economic Self-Sufficiency Coalition of Western New York at http://www.esscwny.com. Click on "Can we help you?" and then "Free tax preparation." The information also may be obtained by calling 851-5555.

UB's outreach is led by Lauren Breen, who directs the Law School's Community Economic Development Clinic, which annually involves the efforts of more than a dozen law students -- each of whom becomes an IRS-certified tax preparer -- and coordinates the coalition, of which the Law School is a member.

Composed of 50 local organizations, the coalition provides a handful of free financial services, with the goal of increasing the financial assets of low-income families. The coalition's programming kicked off on Saturday in the Buffalo Convention Center with a "Family Financial Wellness Day," which offered help in applying for a range of government benefits, in addition to providing free income-tax and tax-credit preparation.

The coalition's outreach is funded by a grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation.

"The coalition may not have been successful the past few years without the help of the UB Law School, and that's a tribute not only to the work of the law students, but to the leadership of Lauren Breen," says Tom Kerr, director of economic self-sufficiency at the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County. "I'm thoroughly amazed at what she has been able to do."

According to Breen, one of the coalition's biggest local impacts is helping low-income residents apply for Earned Income Tax Credit. This refundable federal and state income-tax credit for low-income workers is an underutilized benefit, Breen says. About 25 percent of those eligible for the credit do not file for it each year.

"Individuals who qualify for tax credit can receive up to $5,700 in tax refunds," Breen says. "In effect, that's like raising a person's hourly wage as much as $2 an hour, which is a significant increase for many families.

"We don't want to leave on the table benefits that could be coming to our community."

Breen's efforts this year will get a major boost from the UB School of Management. Joining the outreach are UB accounting students and faculty, including members of the school's chapter of Beta Alpha Psi, the national honor society for accounting and finance students, and members of the UB Accounting Association.

Both student organizations have strong community-service missions and have been providing free tax-preparation to the community on their own for several years. This has made their involvement with the law school clinic and the coalition a natural fit, points out Cynthia Shore, assistant dean for corporate and community relations at the School of Management. In all, the School of Management could provide more than 200 students -- each one an IRS-certified tax preparer -- to help file taxes and train others to do so.

"This is exactly the type of community outreach the School of Management should and wants to be doing," says Shore.

By providing free tax preparation at sites throughout Buffalo, Breen wants to offer an alternative to national tax-preparation franchises. These chains widely promote costly services, such as refund-anticipation loans, whose fees eat into tax returns.

"These products are heavily marketed in poor communities, but they are not in the best interest of low-income families," Breen explains.

"We want to provide a way for low-income families to maximize their assets," she adds. "With the cooperation of local banks, we're even helping families set up checking and saving accounts so they can take advantage of an IRS program that allows automatic deposit of refunds into separate bank accounts."

Next year, Breen hopes to involve students from the UB School of Social Work in the effort. The expertise of these students will be helpful in screening people for appropriate services and benefits beyond free tax preparation, she says.

Breen's work within the Community Economic Development Clinic is an example of the UB Law School's longstanding focus on providing real-world opportunities for students, while promoting civic engagement, says Nils Olsen, dean of the Law School.

"It's a wonderful program and it provides a very effective education for our students," Olsen adds. "It prepares them for future pro bono activities that are a central part of the profession, and it's the kind of service that makes a significant material change in a person's life.

"The ability to get people these tax credits can transform at least part of their life. It's a significant amount of money; they are entitled to it, and with the university's assistance they are able to get it."

In addition to economic development, the UB Law School's nationally renowned legal clinics provide service in other areas where need is great, such as health-related legal concerns of the elderly, affordable housing and family violence, Olsen says.

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