Helping the underserved file their tax returns

July 10, 2012

Millions of low-and moderate-income residents have their tax returns completed and receive refunds from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) without paying a fee to third-party tax preparers, under the program run by Michael A. McBride.

An IRS employee for 40 years, McBride has developed partnerships with more than 4,000 businesses, local governments and nonprofit organizations that provide space and recruit volunteers to help prepare tax returns without a charge for the elderly, the disabled, Native Americans, those with limited English proficiency and others.

Last year, almost 90,000 volunteers assisted with nearly 3.2 million tax returns.

The outcome can be “life altering” for some people, with refunds sometimes comprising as much as a quarter of an individual’s annual income, said McBride, director of the Office of Stakeholder Partnerships, Education and Communication (SPEC) Headquarters Operations.

“I’ve heard stories of single parents who didn’t know they even qualified, and sometimes didn’t file for two or three years, get enough of a refund to change their standard of living,” he said. Some have used the refund to make a down payment on a home or buy a car to save hours of commuting on public transportation.


(Sam Kittner)

But the taxpayers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the Volunteer Return Preparation Program (VITA). In 2011, refunds from the program put $3.7 billion back into local economies.

McBride would like to see more people take advantage of the assistance and learn about the federal tax benefits for which they qualify.

“Everyone should receive credits and deductions and not everyone does,” he said. “There are tons and tons of success stories of those who have received it and what it has done for them and their children.”

Currently, McBride provides guidance on the program to organizations throughout the United States, including local businesses, churches, nonprofits, local governments, national retail chains and membership organizations. Those organizations help raise awareness, find volunteers and provide resources, such as locations where volunteers can assist tax filers. Internally, he provides direct leadership to more than 90 managers and employees of the program, and establishes and provides policies and guidance to more than 500 IRS employees.

One McBride innovation involved a strategy for helping non-resident aliens with limited English proficiency get Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN) at the tax preparation locations. The ITIN keeps these filers from using false Social Security numbers, which creates accounting problems for the IRS. During a two-year period, McBride convinced 132 volunteer organizations to participate, saving underserved taxpayers from being gouged by others who overcharge for the simple service.

“He is helping those who might not otherwise have the means or capability for helping themselves and who, in the past, have been taken advantage of,” said Julie Garcia, director of Customer Assistance, Relationships and Education at the IRS. “He’s making sure those taxpayers who meet our criteria know they qualify for tax credits and preparation for free.”

McBride also oversees a grant program that awards more than $18 million dollars to organizations that extend services to underserved populations in hard-to-reach areas.

Even with these efforts, large numbers of people who need tax preparation assistance still are not aware that the IRS program exists. And, there still aren’t enough volunteers, even with the 12,000 existing tax-preparation sites, to help everyone who needs the assistance.

One of the ideas McBride came up with to deal with this gap, was to partner with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to tap into their network of faith-based organizations as well as the businesses, residents and students who belong to them.

His efforts led to a conference call, hosted by that White House office, with more than 350 organizations, resulting in numerous inquiries from individuals who are considering partnering with the IRS to offer the tax preparation services in their communities.

Recently, McBride approached the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose intended audience includes older Americans, the military and others that the IRS seeks to serve. He also has arranged for the IRS to partner with historically black colleges and universities and with the Temporary Assistance Program for Families and Children, and worked with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which made funds for tax preparation services available in rural areas in four states.

“Michael McBride is instrumental in developing and maintaining critical partnerships,” said Michael Beebe, an IRS colleague. “Our goal is to try to get as many people in the program as possible, and he works tirelessly to make it happen.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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