ARTICLE BY ALICE DETERS AND OLIVIA GRIDER
Learning about poverty in a class is one thing. Experiencing it firsthand, however, especially within one’s own community,
is another thing entirely. Students enrolled in the Poverty, Faith and Justice in America course discuss misperceptions about people living in poverty while offering free tax-preparation services to low-income, working families.
“It’s kind of humbling to see that poverty isn’t something you just read about on paper,” says Katelyn Schwaegerle, a junior majoring in marketing/management and minoring in French. “This is real, and it’s happening just down the road.”
Students also explore the ways faith traditions can affect an individual’s response to poverty and inform his or her understanding 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.
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.
SaveFirst, an initiative of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, 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.
“Before I enrolled in this course, I didn’t think about poverty very often,” says Rebekah Arnold, a senior majoring in accounting. “I assumed that most of those affected were in that position because of poor decisions they had made or simply because they did not know how to allocate their resources properly. I now realize that when you’re born into poverty, it’s very difficult to get out. During tax season, I realized that these aren’t just people who chose to remain where they are and live off of government assistance. They work extremely hard, and they desperately want better for themselves and for their children.”
In 2014, 156 UA students assisted in preparing taxes at 10 sites across the state, helping more than 4,700 families claim more than $9 million in refunds. The students’ service helped these families save $1.4 million in commercial-tax-preparation fees. More than 165 UA students are expected to prepare tax returns for low-income households in 2015.
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, 70 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. Many commercial tax preparers also encourage EITC recipients to take out high-interest, refund-anticipation loans.
Anna Roger, a senior majoring in accounting, says that prior to taking the Poverty in America course, she believed many Americans received government assistance they perhaps did not need. “While preparing returns at the tax site, I met with dozens of hard-working individuals, many of whom worked multiple jobs, yet were still living below the poverty line,” she says. “On my first day, I met with a single mother who worked two jobs while raising her child and her sister’s two children. Learning about the Earned Income Tax Credit and its success as an anti-poverty program was encouraging; I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help hard-working families receive the credit.”
“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,” says Stephen Black, instructor of the Poverty, Faith and Justice in America course and director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility. “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.”
Chisolm Allenlundy, a junior majoring in philosophy and economics, says the course and the SaveFirst service experience worked hand in hand to change his understanding of poverty on numerous levels, from its causes to its relation to race. Through reading assignments, he learned how inadequate education, predatory lending and other factors contribute to poverty and found he was mistaken in thinking about poverty as largely an urban, black problem.
“More than anything, it was the conversations with the people with whom I worked that altered my perceptions the greatest,” Allenlundy says. “Having discussions with men and women of all ages, from 21 to 73, I saw a side of poverty that no classroom experience could ever offer: the human side. My perception of poverty was no longer a perception of an abstract concept, but rather a perception of a real person’s life.”
In its ninth year, SaveFirst is the largest campus-based, free-tax-preparation initiative in the nation. UA students participating in SaveFirst in 2014 collaborated with more than 400 students from 15 other campuses statewide, preparing returns for more than 8,200 families and helping them claim more than $14.9 million in refunds and save more than $2.5 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.