The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Social Workers' Involvement With the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 9:30 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon E, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sally A. Hageman, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Vernon Loke, PhD, Assistant Professor, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA
Purpose:  The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program provides free annual tax preparation assistance for low-to-moderate income populations across the United States.  Traditional volunteers for the VITA program were accounting students, but today the VITA program includes volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds (IRS, 2012). Social workers, however, may not be significantly involved with the VITA program as direct volunteers. Social work’s main involvement with the VITA program is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), providing outreach to assist low-to-moderate income families claim the EITC, and linking tax refunds to savings programs (Beverly, 2002).  Traditional social work services, such as case management and crisis intervention, are not a part of the VITA program and VITA clients typically receive a one-time off-site referral for social services.  This study attempts to describe how social workers may be involved with the VITA program by examining the self-reported needs of VITA clients compared to client needs identified by focus groups conducted with VITA volunteers.

Methods:  This paper explores and describes the most significant self-reported needs of VITA clients, and compares these needs with responses from VITA volunteers.  The client survey instrument used for the study was developed by the Community Action Partnership of Utah (CAP-U) to collect annual data on VITA client financial needs.  Secondary data from 3,933 VITA program clients in tax year 2010 and 5,504 clients in tax year 2011 was analyzed for this study.  The focus group survey instrument for VITA volunteers was created for this study and includes responses from 30 VITA volunteers who were certified by the IRS and actively prepared taxes for VITA program clients for the tax year 2012. 

Results: Results reveal out of 3,933 VITA program clients in tax year 2010, almost one-third (28%) indicate an interest in receiving information on financial aid, while 18.9% indicate a need to pay debt, and 18.7% indicate a need for information on how to budget.  Similarly, in 2011, out of 5,504 respondents, 12.5% indicate their primary financial concern is to go back to school, 11.7% indicate budgeting is their second concern, and 10.8% marked financial aid as their third concern. Further, when asked, “if you received a tax refund last year, how did you spend it?” almost one-third (32.5%) indicate they spent their tax refund to pay for basic needs such as food, utilities, rent, and mortgage.  Results from the focus groups reveal that VITA volunteers predominately identify VITA client needs beyond financial, such as housing, child care, employment, health care, legal, and mental health.  VITA volunteers also indicated a need to improve the social service referral process and the need for follow up with VITA program clients.  

Conclusions and Implications: The authors discuss the discrepancies between the needs identified by VITA clients and VITA volunteers, the potential benefit of the direct involvement of social workers with the VITA program and the important impact this involvement may have on VITA program client outcomes. Implications for future social work practice and research on the VITA program are discussed.