The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) program in the US that supports free tax preparation service through partner organizations. VITA serves people who make $58,000 or less, persons with disabilities; and limited English-speaking taxpayers. VITA services are not only free, they are also a reliable and trusted source for preparing tax returns. All VITA volunteers who prepare returns must take and pass tax law training that meets or exceeds IRS standards. This training includes maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of all taxpayer information. In addition to requiring volunteers to certify their knowledge of the tax laws, the IRS requires a quality review check for every return prepared at a VITA site prior to filing.
About Professor Serena Laws, Director of the VITA Clinic at Trinfo
Serena Laws received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2011. Her research is focused on the politics of debt and debt relief, and U.S. social policy generally. Prior to coming to Trinity, she held positions as a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University and as a Research Fellow at Dartmouth College, where she taught courses and supervised undergraduates conducting policy research for legislators in New Hampshire and Vermont. She received her Bachelor’s Degree from Amherst College and is committed to liberal arts education. Her teaching emphasizes the connections between the political institutions of the United States and the everyday lives of its citizens, incorporating experiential learning and guest speakers to enhance students’ exposure to real world examples.
The VITA Clinic at Trinfo
In the 2019 pilot year of the Trinity VITA Tax Clinic, eight students were trained as tax preparers and provided services at Trinfo Cafe where they served 161 clients with total refunds reaching $224,217 and saving $43,953 in tax prep fees. The average annual income of families served was $18,304 and the average return for a Hartford family was $1,494, and for families with kids that number was $4,410.
The clinic grew in 2020, despite a truncated tax season with the clinic closing March 13 due to COVID. The clinic prepared 199 tax returns and generated $448,859 in refunds. The average refund was $2,480 and the average refund for families was $5,104.
The clinic continued to expand in 2021, preparing a total of 344 returns. The returns generated a total of $619,049 in refunds. The average total refund was $2,245 and the average total refund for a family was $5,994. The clinic saved clients over $85,000 in tax preparation fees and the average income for individuals served through the clinic was $20,495. The Trinfo VITA clinic prepared 6% of the total returns for the Central CT VITA Network.
In 2022, the clinic offered services six days a week throughout the tax season. The clinic was assisted by twenty students who were trained as IRS-certified tax preparers. Continuing the clinic’s growth over its four years of operation, the clinic prepared 461 returns, saved clients $101,420 in tax preparation fees, and generated $916,910 in total refunds for clients. The clients’ median household income was $27,173 and the average total refund (federal plus state) was $2,590.
In 2023, the clinic prepared 629 tax returns. Under the guidance of Professor Laws and site coordinator Linda Martinez IDP ’04, students saved clients an estimated $138,380. Sean Russell ’23, a student tax preparer in 2023, added that the course and clinic are a unique opportunity for students to get to know their classmates on a deeper level. “Getting to work in a job setting with classmates enhanced class discussions during our class period. I felt more comfortable speaking and engaging with the texts with my classmates due to our bonding at the VITA site,” Russell says.