ARTICLE BY OLIVIA GRIDER
Rachel Beverly used to think many people living in poverty just hadn’t worked hard enough. Her views changed when she took a University of Alabama course that explores poverty in America and introduces students to impoverished people in their own communities.
“I began to understand that I lived in a bubble,” says Beverly, a senior from Dothan, Ala., majoring in accounting.
“I knew low-income people lived right down the road, but I had not taken the time to get to know them and their situations.”
Students enrolled in the UH 331/MGT491 SaveFirst: Poverty, Faith and Justice in America course discuss issues the working poor face, perceptions about those living in poverty and policies affecting low-income families and individuals. At the same time, they complete eight hours of income-tax-preparation training, take an IRS certification test and serve as volunteer tax preparers for low-income clients at community-based sites across Alabama.
Beverly says she was initially hesitant to assist low-income individuals with their tax returns. “But then walks in a gentleman with multiple W-2s, working whatever odd jobs he can,” Beverly says of her experience at a tax-preparation site. “One lady I encountered had worked as an assembly-line worker for over 20 years. She showed me how she lifts her right arm to the sky and twists counter-clockwise hour after hour.” Beverly says the course made her aware how fortunate she is to attend college and to have grown up with supportive people mentoring her. It also made her consider how she would want to be treated if she had been born into a low-income family.
Students provide free income-tax-preparation services in partnership with SaveFirst, an initiative of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility. SaveFirst seeks to ensure low-income Alabamians receive the full Earned Income Tax Credit – the federal government’s largest anti-poverty program supporting low- to moderate-income families – and other credits to which they are entitled. It also counteracts predatory lending practices by allowing families to avoid costly commercial tax preparers whose exorbitant fees counteract the benefits of federal tax credits.
Students who participate in SaveFirst often interact with individuals and families with backgrounds very different from their own, an experience that offers them new perspectives on those living in poverty. Like Beverly, many say the experience challenges commonly held assumptions that those living in poverty have done something wrong or are lazy.
Andrekious Evans, a junior from Talladega, Ala., majoring in computer science, says class readings and discussions didn’t change his opinions, but gave him the supporting evidence he needed to effectively express his views. Evans grew up in a household that included his mother, two siblings, two cousins and an aunt who is disabled due to multiple sclerosis. Evans’ mother worked more than 40 hours per week at a nursing home to support the family.
“I have witnessed my mom wake up at 4 a.m., be at work by 6 a.m., work until 6 p.m. that evening, come in and make sure everything is going smoothly in our house, cook us a full-course meal and repeat the next morning,” Evans says. “That scene does not sound like someone who is lazy or has a low drive for success.
Sometimes you are just dealt a hand that you have to play with. There are plenty of people who are poor and receiving government assistance who are hard workers.” Through the course, students also explore the ways faith traditions can affect responses to poverty and inform understandings of justice. They engage in interfaith discussions comparing and contrasting various faith traditions’ stances on service, obligation and justice and are encouraged to share their own experiences and opinions.
In 2017, 129 UA students assisted in preparing taxes at 16 sites across the state, helping more than 6,700 families claim more than $12 million in refunds. The students’ service helped these families save $2.7 million in commercial-tax-preparation fees.
In its 11th year, SaveFirst is the largest campus-based, free-tax-preparation initiative in the nation. UA students participating in SaveFirst in 2017 collaborated with more than 462 volunteers from 17 other campuses statewide and several community-based organizations, preparing returns for 9,081 families and helping them claim more than $15.6 million in refunds and save more than $3.6 million in fees.
Annually, more than 520,000 working families in Alabama claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, representing a $1.4 billion investment for the state. However, an estimated $133 million in EITC dollars are unclaimed by families who are eligible for the credit but do not know to claim it.
Moreover, 65 percent of Alabama’s EITC recipients pay an average of $400 to commercial tax preparers just to access this benefit. That extra money could help low-income families secure health insurance, pay down debts or put food on the table.
“When somebody takes $300 from you and you’ve got kids to raise, that’s a little bitter tasting,” says Antoinette Miller, a SaveFirst client who has paid commercial tax preparers in the past.
Another client, Christian Hunter, says he usually pays $250 to have his income taxes prepared, but last year he was charged $500. “Being a single parent, you need that money, and I knew I needed to find another alternative.
I would have used the amount I was charged last year to pay for one of my children’s school tuition, no question.”
Stephen Black, instructor of the Poverty, Faith and Justice in America course and director of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, says SaveFirst cultivates a desire in students to take responsibility for the wellbeing of the larger community. “This empowers them to critically think about the structural causes of the need for their service and to take leadership roles in developing innovative solutions to them,” he says.
Beverly volunteered at a tax site in her hometown and says “Savage Inequalities,” a book students read as part of the Poverty in America course, applied to her situation. The book explores the differences in two cities just a few miles apart. “This experience has helped me become more aware of the opportunities I have been given and how I can use my education to help those who work hard to support their families,” she says.
Justin Pendleton, who earned a degree in psychology and international studies in 2016 and is from Ypsilanti, Mich., says he feels better prepared to educate others about false stereotypes and ways in which certain groups are taken advantage of. For instance, because the poor live paycheck to paycheck, they are targets for title-pawn and payday-lending companies that offer quick money with annual interest rates that can average 400 percent.
“People of color are the majority of the target customer/ victim base of payday loan businesses, despite being the numerical minority in America,” Pendleton says.
“Now when I stand face-to-face with a person who refuses to see the inequities in our country, I can point to articles and statistics and deliver a much-needed dose of the truth,” he says.
To learn more about SaveFirst or the Poverty, Faith and Justice in America course, see cesr.ua.edu or contact the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-348-6492.