Article by Lane Stafford and Olivia Grider
For many college students, the reality of poverty is not a familiar subject. Their outlooks often change dramatically when they meet and learn the stories of impoverished people in their own communities.
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.
“When I walked into my first class of UH 331 in January, I did not know what to expect,” says Jack Dillard, a senior majoring in accounting. “Now, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have taken this course. Before this class, my knowledge about American poverty was not only naïve, it was wrong.”
Dillard says the course and his volunteer experience taught him how inadequate education, predatory payday and title-loan lending and factors beyond individual control contribute to poverty. “People in America tend to blame a person’s poverty on the person him or herself without factoring in any other possible circumstances,” he says.
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 opinions and experiences.
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 for which they are entitled. It also counteracts predatory lending practices and encourages long-term financial planning and asset building by offering financial-literacy information and opportunities for saving and investing.
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. Many say the experience challenges commonly held assumptions that those living in poverty have done something wrong or are lazy.
“Way more than any other demographic, the majority of people I helped were single mothers,” says Madeline West, a senior majoring in finance. “These mothers work their absolute hardest to provide for their children. In order to accomplish this, they sometimes have to work two or more jobs. Even with working multiple jobs, sending their children to college is often out of the picture.”
In 2016, 137 UA students assisted in preparing taxes at 14 sites across the state, helping more than 6,430 families claim more than $12.75 million in refunds. The students’ service helped these families save $2.5 million in commercial-tax-preparation fees. Students also helped expand a virtual model of tax preparation hosted on UA’s campus to serve smaller communities, including Greenville and Selma.
In its 10th year, SaveFirst is the largest campus-based, free-tax-preparation initiative in the nation. UA students participating in SaveFirst in 2016 collaborated with more than 414 students from 20 other campuses statewide, preparing returns for more than 9,000 families and helping them claim more than $17.8 million in refunds and save more than $3.6 million in fees.
Annually, more than 510,000 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, 62 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.
“We used to go get our taxes done through a paid service, and it was so much coming out of our income-tax refund – like, three, four hundred dollars,” says Rebecca Charles, a SaveFirst client. “With five kids, if your refrigerator or your heating and air goes out, that money’s very vital.”
Another client, Christian Hunter, says he usually pays $250 to have his income taxes prepared, but last year he was charged $500. “I would have used the amount I was charged to pay for one of my children’s school tuition, no question,” he says. “When you’re in that situation, don’t know what services are available to you and know you’re getting a refund, you don’t think as much about the cost. It’s only later that you realize how you could have used the money you paid to have your taxes prepared.”
Karli Boulware, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in accounting, says volunteering with SaveFirst opened her eyes to everyday problems facing many families in Alabama. “These are problems that I might have been aware of, but still did not seem very real,” she explains. “Being able to place a human face alongside an issue is important for a number of reasons, but mostly because it causes a sense of urgency. For that, I am incredibly grateful.”
Dillard says learning about recent science regarding the importance of early-childhood education and about the role educational inequity plays in contributing to poverty changed his views. “Growing up in a nurturing home environment and starting private school at a fairly young age, I was unaware of how paramount these issues are to the overall goal of putting an end to poverty and providing the poor with a fighting chance to better themselves and their situations,” he says.
Because the poor live paycheck to paycheck, they also are targets for title-pawn and payday lending companies that offer quick money with annual interest rates that can average 400 percent, Dillard says.
West says this information surprised her. “Prior to this class, I did not realize that impoverished people could easily fall victim to such loans and that once entwined in them, could be trapped in them,” she says.
Stephen Black, instructor of the Poverty, Faith and Justice in America course and director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, says SaveFirst cultivates a desire in students to take responsibility for the well-being 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.”
West and Dillard concluded lack of awareness is one of the biggest barriers in the fight against poverty. “The general population does not realize all of the various facets of poverty,” West says. “People are unable to form proper opinions unless they are fully informed on the issues.
Dillard says society can effectively confront poverty if the knowledge gap concerning it is closed. The Poverty in America course, he adds, made him feel like he can play a part in making this happen.
“It has opened my eyes to so many issues in the United States when it comes to addressing poverty and has shown me how lucky I have been throughout my life,” he says. “I am not confident I can single-handedly change the way the country views poverty, but I can still make a difference.”
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 cesr@ ua.edu or 205-348-6492.