Poverty, Faith and Justice in America
A service-learning course examining faith traditions and how they shape responses to poverty

Poverty, Faith, and Justice in America introduces students to the concepts of justice and obligation in various faith traditions while fostering discussion on issues faced by the working poor, perceptions and misperceptions of those living in poverty, and current policies affecting lower-income families and individuals.  Students enrolled in Poverty, Faith, and Justice in America engage in discussions with interfaith community members, including representatives from the Islamic, Jewish, and Protestant faiths, comparing and contrasting various faith traditions’ stances on service, obligation, and justice.  In addition to classroom discussions, students complete tax training, take an IRS certification test, and once students become certified, they serve as SaveFirst volunteer tax preparers at community-based sites across the state from mid-January through February.  In March, students participate in the FocusFirst Initiative, which trains college and graduate students to conduct high-tech vision screenings for children six months to five years of age enrolled in Head Start programs and daycares in economically disadvantaged communities.

SaveFirst Background

Abusive practices such as payday loan schemes, check-cashing operations, and predatory lending target low-income individuals and dramatically erode their earnings.  Commercial tax preparers offering refund anticipation loans to individuals qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit can charge an amount exceeding an effective annual rate of 800 percent through exorbitant fees and interest rates.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, is the federal government’s largest anti-poverty program to support low- to moderate-income working families. (Hear a national story on the value and legacy of the EITC.)

The EITC reduces the tax burden on low-income workers and provides a positive incentive for individuals, especially single mothers, to find work. More than 500,000 working families in Alabama annually claim the EITC, representing a $1 billion investment for our state. However, an estimated $133 million in EITC dollars are “left on the table” by households that are eligible for the credit but do not claim it. Moreover, 75 percent of Alabama’s EITC recipients pay an average of $200 to commercial tax preparers just to access this benefit. Often, they then take out predatory refund anticipation loans, or RALs, on their expected refunds at annual percentage rates of up to 800 percent, further eroding the benefits of the EITC. Alabama’s families lose $77 million to commercial tax preparers through fees and RALs. That extra $77 million could have made a tremendous contribution to helping lower-income families secure health insurance, pay down debts or put food on the table. SaveFirst offers a smarter alternative: free tax preparation services.

The goal of the SaveFirst Initiative is to train college, graduate, and law students to offer free tax preparation services and opportunities for savings and investments to low-income families, especially targeting those eligible for an Earned Income Tax Credit refund. The SaveFirst Initiative exists to ensure that low-income individuals receive the full Earned Income Tax Credit and other credits for which they are entitled, to counteract predatory lending practices, and to encourage long-term financial planning and asset-building.  In just its sixth year, SaveFirst is the largest volunteer tax preparation program serving Earned Income Tax Credit families in the state.

FocusFirst Background

FocusFirst provides a cost-effective direct response to the vision care problems of children who live in urban and rural communities in Alabama. Under the supervision of Impact Alabama, undergraduate and graduate students provide free vision screenings to children, six months to five years of age, in Head Starts and daycares, using technologically advanced photo optic scan cameras. All children who fail the screenings receive free follow-up care through our partner nonprofit Sight Savers America.

Since beginning service in 2004, over 2,100 college students at more than twenty-three colleges and universities throughout Alabama have participated with FocusFirst. These students have screened more than 123,000 children in all 67 counties across the state, with approximately 12 percent of the children failing the screenings and receiving free follow-up care as necessary through Sight Savers America.

Poor vision adversely affects tens of thousands of children in our state each year, leading to a substandard education.  This is largely the result of poor public awareness about the importance of eye care in young children and the inability of children to recognize their own vision problems.  These problems are heightened in families from economically disadvantaged backgrounds by financial hardship and lack of access to appropriate medical care.  Additionally, it is well recognized that vision screenings are most effective during the preschool years when early identification and treatment of many conditions can prevent irreversible vision damage or loss. Unfortunately, although many children in daycare, pre-K, and Head Start programs are known to need eye care, many go without it.  Despite the importance of early screening and detection, it is estimated that only 21 percent of preschool children receive comprehensive vision screenings.  Further exacerbating this situation, vision problems among children have been linked with behavioral risks, reduced academic performance, and low self-esteem [Johnson, R, Nottingham, D, Stratton, R, & Zaba, J. (1996). Division Screening of Academically and Behaviorally At-Risk Students.  Journal of Behavioral Optometry, 7].

Achievements from 2012

*More than 130 UA students (62 of whom enrolled in the Poverty, Faith, and Justice in America course) prepared taxes at 15 SaveFirst sites across the state.

 

*The sites where UA students assisted prepared more than 3,200 returns – helping families claim more than $6 million in refunds and save nearly $1 million in commercial preparation fees.

 

*Statewide, more than 300 other students from eleven other campuses collaborated with UA students to prepare returns for more than 5,100 families – helping them claim more than $9.2 million in refunds and save more than $1.5 million in fees.

 

*Poverty, Faith, and Justice in America students dedicated approximately 54 hours to the FocusFirst Initiative conducting high-tech vision screenings for 405 children six months to five years of age enrolled daycares in economically disadvantaged communities.

*UA students dedicated more than 250 hours to helping the city of Tuscaloosa continue to remove debris after the April 2011 tornado that destroyed 12 percent of the city.

Collaboration

The University of Alabama is a leading campus for SaveFirst and FocusFirst volunteers.  SaveFirst and FocusFirst are signature programs of Impact Alabama: A Student Service Initiative, Alabama’s first nonprofit dedicated to developing and implementing substantive service-learning projects in coordination with more than twenty universities and colleges throughout the state.

Impact Alabama is housed and supported by the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at The University of Alabama.

How You Can Be Involved

UA students participate in two ways:

1. Poverty, Faith, and Justice in America service-learning course.  The Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility sponsors a service-learning course that allows students to combine academic coursework with SaveFirst community service.  Course credit for the SaveFirst service-learning course is available in the spring semester through UH 331 and MGT 491.

2. Volunteer with SaveFirst.  Students also are trained and volunteer outside the context of the course, typically committing to work at an out-of-town tax site for one or more Saturdays during mid-January to mid-February.

Please contact Megan Bailey or Jessica Lovett, SaveFirst Course Coordinators for more information and/or to sign up.

 

 

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