While assisting community members, students in UH 331/MGT 491 Poverty, Faith and Justice in America explore the role of faith in perceptions of poverty and justice.
BY TAYLOR VEAZEY
Each spring, students enrolled in Poverty, Faith and Justice in America explore the ways faith traditions can affect an individual’s response to poverty and inform his or her understanding of justice. They also discuss misperceptions of people living in poverty and offer free tax-preparation services to low-income, working families.
Students enrolled in Poverty, Faith and Justice in America engaged in interfaith discussions with community
members, including representatives from the Islamic, Jewish
and Protestant faiths, comparing and contrasting various faith traditions’ stances on service, obligation and justice. Students also are encouraged to share their opinions and experiences.
In addition to participating in classroom discussions, students complete eight hours of tax training, take an IRS certification test and serve as SaveFirst volunteer tax preparers at community-based sites across Alabama from mid-January through February.
The SaveFirst initiative seeks to ensure low-income individuals receive the full Earned Income Tax Credit – the federal government’s largest anti-poverty program supporting low- to moderate-income working families – and other credits to which they are entitled. It also counteracts predatory lending practices and encourages long-term financial planning and asset building by offering free tax-preparation services, financial-literacy information and opportunities for savings and investments to low-income families.
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.
Garrett Teal, a senior majoring in economics, was particularly surprised when he filed a tax return for a client younger than himself. “I remember seeing that his date of birth was in 1995. This kid is a couple years younger than me,” Teal said. “He was 18, living with his sister and working full time at a grocery store. And here I am in college living mostly off my parents. It’s humbling.”
Marina Roberts, a senior majoring in accounting, said the clients she worked with are not lazy or unmotivated. “One woman had ambitions to open a bakery. One gentleman was very intentional about saving for his retirement,” she said. “These people are not part of a stereotype. They’re not just working for themselves. It speaks to how difficult it can be in the working class.”
In 2013, 130 UA students assisted in preparing taxes at 15 sites across the state, helping more than 3,910 families claim more than $7.2 million in refunds. The students’ service helped these families save nearly $1.2 million in commercial-tax-preparation fees.
More than 492,000 working families in Alabama annually claim the EITC, representing a $1 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, 75 percent of Alabama’s EITC recipients pay an average of $300 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.
“The SaveFirst service-learning initiative cultivates a willingness and desire in students to take responsibility for the well-being and progress of the larger community – empowering them to critically think about the structural causes of the need for their service and take leadership roles to develop innovative solutions to them,” said Stephen Black, director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility and Poverty, Faith and Justice in America instructor.
Teal, who has volunteered with SaveFirst for two years, said the experience has shaped his career ambitions of working in public policy. “Ideally, I’m going to be involved with low-income families,” he said. “I am meeting people where they are and learning their backgrounds and understanding where they come from.”
In its seventh year, SaveFirst is the largest campus-based, free-tax-preparation initiative in the nation. UA students participating in SaveFirst in 2013 collaborated with more than 350 students from 15 other campuses statewide, preparing returns for more than 6,200 families and helping them claim more than $11.7 million in refunds and save more than $1.9 million in fees.
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.