connect / 2014

Los Angeles Free Income Tax Project

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC)

Bringing $46 million back to low-income working families in Los Angeles through volunteer-driven free tax preparation services.


Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

Bringing $46 million back to low-income working families in Los Angeles through volunteer-driven free tax preparation services.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits all of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • San Fernando Valley
  • South Bay
  • Westside
  • Los Angeles County

What is your idea/project in more detail?

Did you know that thousands of volunteers throughout the United States drive one of the most effective anti-poverty strategies in the country? Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program utilizes IRS trained and certified volunteers to provide free income tax filing to low- and moderate-income taxpayers, connecting these working families with deductions and refundable tax credits without losing a single cent to tax preparation fees. In our vision of a civically engaged and connected Los Angeles in 2050, Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC) will work with schools, corporations, nonprofit organizations and government entities to build a VITA collaborative in Los Angeles and work with over 500 volunteers for the 2015 tax season.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

KYCC has been a successful VITA provider since 2006, serving over 20,000 low-income families throughout Central Los Angeles and returning more than $17.5 million in refunds back to the families that we serve. Although these are impressive numbers, there is more that KYCC can and will do. In Los Angeles County, there were 2.6 million tax returns filed with the IRS in 2012. Among them, 28.13% were self prepared, 70.28% were paid prepared, and 1.56% were volunteer prepared. The last figure is telling. Of all of the taxpayers eligible for free VITA services in Los Angeles County, only 1.56% took advantage of the program. Why is this the case? Unlike San Francisco or New York where there are coordinated VITA infrastructures, Los Angeles lacks such coordination. Through our proposed collaborative, KYCC will bring such unified services and structure to the VITA programs throughout Los Angeles County.

Most importantly, KYCC will implement a coordinated volunteer management program with our VITA collaborative. First, KYCC and the collaborative will coordinate the recruitment of volunteers by working with local schools such as UCLA Extension and Cal State Long Beach, local banks and other corporations, youth, and retirees. Second, once volunteers have committed to work with VITA, KYCC will coordinate the training. IRS requires VITA volunteers to receive tax preparation trainings. KYCC will provide both online and in-class training opportunities. The VITA collaborative partners will also be trained and in turn provide training to volunteers who come to their organizations. Third, KYCC and the VITA collaborative will manage the assignment of volunteer opportunities with trained volunteers. In the past, some VITA sites had an over abundance of volunteers while other sites had tremendous difficulty even finding one. By recruiting volunteers from throughout Los Angeles County, KYCC will facilitate placement of volunteers at sites near where they work, live or play, reducing some of the barriers to volunteering. Finally, the volunteer retention strategy for KYCC and the VITA collaborative is based on ensuring that volunteers are supported, guided and engaged consistently throughout all VITA sites. In addition to adequate training, KYCC and the VITA collaborative will ensure that all logistics are prepared for volunteers to do their work without interruptions or distractions (e.g., appointment scheduling, adequate staff presence, necessary technology and supplies).

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to CONNECT today? In 2050?

Envision a Los Angeles where Angelenos care about one another – today and in 2050. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is about more than free tax preparation. Volunteers who commit to VITA go through rigorous training and dedicate many hours from January to April to work with low-income working families, helping them connect with hundreds and thousands of dollars in refunds that not only help the families financially but also feed the local economy. By inspiring over 500 volunteers to commit to VITA in 2015, KYCC will begin the process of bringing a culture of compassion and helping one another to Los Angeles. Through our VITA collaborative’s volunteer program, each VITA volunteer will know the impact that they are making in the lives of each of the low-income, working families who receive VITA services. For example, each volunteer will learn that, in 2014, VITA volunteers completed 44,575 tax returns in Los Angeles County for a refund of almost $46 million back to our families (and the local economy). Volunteers will feel good about the difference that they are making in the lives of their neighbors and continue to make VITA an annual volunteer commitment.

By 2050, the work and dedication begun by the first 500 VITA volunteers in 2015 will have made an impact in Los Angeles and the decades of fostering a culture of compassion and helping one another will have born fruit. Each year following 2015, KYCC will have increased the number of Angelenos volunteering with VITA, and that means more and more low-income, working families eligible for VITA services will have known about it and have taken advantage of the free tax preparation. In turn, that means that the amount of refunds to our families each year will have exceeded the $46 million returned in 2014 and that more eligible working families will have received the Earned Income Tax Credit. And by receiving larger refunds including the EITC, research indicates that children of such recipients do better in school, are likelier to attend college, and earn more as adults. All these benefits will also spur spending and development in our local economy. Finally, with more volunteers each year, the VITA collaborative will add new partner organizations and grow into a stronger network. So by 2050, through KYCC’s VITA collaborative, Angelenos of different socioeconomic backgrounds will have come together to help one another and to develop a sense that we are all Angelenos.

Whom will your project benefit?

KYCC and our VITA collaborative will directly benefit low- and very low-income residents of Los Angeles, who are oftentimes linguistically isolated (monolingual Spanish, Korean or Chinese speakers) or have other barriers (cultural, educational, etc.) hindering access to basic and/or mainstream financial services. For example, KYCC and our partner VITA organizations work primarily within Los Angeles’ low-income areas such as Koreatown, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Chinatown, El Sereno, and Lincoln Heights. These areas are home primarily to a majority of Latino residents as well as other immigrant groups such as Koreans and Chinese; as immigrant communities, many of these residents speak little to no English and have difficulty accessing mainstream services such as banking and even government benefits. Additionally, these neighborhoods tend to have much higher poverty rate than the rest of Los Angeles County. For example, in Koreatown, the estimated median household income in 2008 was $27,438 with 45% of residents falling below the federal poverty line. In Boyle Heights, for another example, the family poverty level is nearly three times the state average (28.4% vs. 9.8%) with high incidences of foreclosures and low homeownership rates compared with Los Angeles County (23% vs. 47.8%). Moreover, City of Los Angeles FamilySource Centers are located in the most economically distressed areas of the city and specifically provide comprehensive academic and economic development services to low-income residents of those areas. Overall, most of the residents are working poor that live paycheck to paycheck and are not ready for any financial emergencies.

In addition, KYCC’s VITA collaborative will specifically benefit working low-income families in Los Angeles County who fail to claim Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refunds every year. According to the New America Foundation, EITC is widely regarded as the nation’s most effective and efficient anti-poverty program. But in Los Angeles County, the IRS estimates that 21% of all eligible families who qualify for EITC do not file a federal tax return to claim the credit. That means residents are leaving behind at least $300 million in EITC in Los Angeles County each year. That is money that could have helped low-income families save for emergencies, pay for higher education or child care, and many other things to improve their lives.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

For 2015 and beyond, KYCC will lead a VITA collaborative with Chinatown Service Center (CSC), East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF), Children’s Institute (CII), and 19 City of Los Angeles FamilySource Centers (FSCs). This collaborative is confirmed, and we have been working together as an informal VITA collaborative for the past few years.

Each VITA partner organization brings its cultural and linguistic capacity to serve low-income, linguistically isolated populations. Culturally, immigrant communities are very reluctant to seek help, even if they are eligible for it (either government or social support services). The decades of service provided by KYCC, CSC, ELACC, MAOF, CII and FSCs within their communities have enabled each organization to build trust and good reputation necessary to lower barriers for clients to seek out our assistance. Together, the collaborative has the cultural, linguistic and organizational capacity to provide high quality VITA programs to a very large number of clients in the Latino, Korean, and Chinese communities – more than other nonprofits in the greater Los Angeles area. Very few organizations offer free tax preparation for Korean and Chinese communities and none has the same volume capacity and longstanding successful track record as KYCC and CSC. In addition, our sites are located centrally to the geographic areas where these immigrant communities meet and congregate, and these areas are easily accessible by public transportation – further lowering barriers for accessing our programs.

Finally, three factors critical to the success of KYCC’s VITA collaborative include (1) buy-in from each organization, (2) effective volunteer engagement and (3) ability to sync with other anti-poverty initiatives. Although KYCC has been working informally with the partner organizations, each VITA partner’s commitment to the collaborative is key. Moreover, volunteers are the most important component of VITA services since they provide the actual tax preparation that brings refunds and credits back to our low-income communities. To ensure that volunteers enjoy their experience, the VITA collaborative must provide effective volunteer management. Finally, VITA services alone cannot combat poverty in Los Angeles. The collaborative must partner with other anti-poverty initiatives in the city such as the Mayor’s Working Families, City of Los Angeles Office of Financial Empowerment, and others.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Connect” metrics?

  • Rates of volunteerism
  • Adults getting sufficient social & emotional support
  • Participation in neighborhood councils
  • Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric)
  • Government responsiveness to residents’ needs (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

  1. Rates of volunteerism. KYCC’s VITA collaborative will conduct outreach and marketing to encourage and recruit volunteers for the 2015 VITA program. Through these efforts, more and more Angelenos will find out about our volunteer opportunities and how they can positively impact the lives of low-income, working neighbors in Los Angeles. This will foster more Angelenos to volunteer their time with the VITA program.

  2. Adults getting sufficient social & emotional support. As rates of volunteerism increases throughout Los Angeles, the tangible benefits of volunteering will accrue. Research has shown that volunteering benefits the volunteers themselves by bringing social connections through new friends and contacts, by reducing the risk of depression resulting from social isolation, and by lessening symptoms of chronic pain or heart diseases especially among elderly volunteers. Overall, volunteering will enhance the volunteers’ social and emotional connections.

  3. Participation in neighborhood councils. As KYCC establishes the VITA collaborative and our volunteer network, this infrastructure will be used to inform volunteers about opportunities for civic participation, including neighborhood council meetings.

  4. Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric). As KYCC’s VITA collaborative begins our formal outreach and marketing in 2015 to recruit volunteers for the VITA program, we will establish a network of VITA volunteers who will continue to volunteer with our program each year. The recruitment, training and retention strategies will ensure that volunteers continue to informally work with KYCC’s VITA collaborative for each tax season.

  5. Government responsiveness to residents’ needs (Dream Metric). The goal of KYCC’s VITA collaborative is to eventually include local governments, community-based organizations, schools and corporations to meet the needs of low-income, working families. Also, the work of the VITA volunteers is to ensure that these low-income, working families are filing taxes and receiving the benefits that they are due from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit, and other tax credits. Moreover, KYCC will be outreaching to city and county employees to volunteer at VITA sites, thereby providing opportunities for government employees to interact with community members. Discussions on the needs of low income community will happen organically and indirectly increase government responsiveness.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

To evaluate this project, KYCC will measure its success towards reaching the following goals: (1) Recruit, train and place at least 500 volunteers in 2015 VITA season; (2) File at least 10,000 free tax returns through the VITA collaborative in 2015; and (3) Compared to 2014, each VITA collaborative organization will increase the number of volunteers and number of hours volunteered by at least 25% in 2015.

KYCC will use both IRS data and our own program records to measure our VITA program’s results and successes. Our own data collection mechanisms consist of intake surveys for tax clients and surveys and signed volunteer agreements for volunteers, volunteer sign-in sheets, and appointment logs. To measure our results (regarding numbers of volunteers, clients, successful returns, accuracy, refund amounts, etc.), we use both our own and IRS records. To measure volunteer and client satisfaction with the program, we use intake and follow-up surveys and evaluations. In addition, we use volunteer and client feedback and testimonials to anecdotally assess satisfaction and impact of our program.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

The following two lessons have informed KYCC. First, since 2006, KYCC has been a VITA provider and have worked informally as a collaborative with other nonprofit organizations throughout Los Angeles. Through this experience, KYCC worked with a nonprofit organization in South Los Angeles to establish a VITA site there. For the past three years, KYCC has been working with this South LA organization but throughout that entire time, there has been only one volunteer who was able to dedicate his time and effort to serving South Los Angeles. The difficulty in recruiting and assigning volunteers to South Los Angeles taught us that, while KYCC always had a volunteer recruitment plan, other VITA sites were not as fortunate due to lack of resources that hindered creation of a volunteer program. We also learned that, although KYCC had an abundance of volunteers at our Koreatown sites, those volunteers were reluctant to go to another organization in an unfamiliar part of town. The need for a coordinated and unified volunteer recruitment, training and assignment system throughout Los Angeles was developed through KYCC’s experiences working with VITA volunteers since 2006.

Second, although the City of Los Angeles is the second most populous city in the United States after New York City and the County of Los Angeles is the most populous county in the country, we do not have a city-wide or county-wide effort supporting VITA sites throughout the city or county. For example, in San Francisco and the Bay Area, the IRS, local governments, United Way of the Bay Area, and over 250 partner organizations have come together to create the “Earn It, Keep It, Save It” program (http://www.earnitkeepitsaveit.org/) that provides an overarching infrastructure to the VITA services being provided in the region. “Earn It, Keep It, Save It” also provides coordinated volunteer recruitment and training that feeds over 3,000 volunteers to the Bay Area VITA providers. By looking at what other cities and counties have done with their VITA programs, KYCC began to put together our VITA collaborative. In 2012, there were 2,633,906 tax returns filed in Los Angeles County and only 1.56% of that were volunteer prepared. Imagine how much we can save working, low-income families (and bring them hundreds and thousands of dollars in refunds) if we are able to connect them to quality, free tax preparation done by caring and knowledgeable Angeleno volunteers.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

KYCC’s VITA collaborative already has formal commitments from 23 VITA site providers including CSC, ELACC, MAOF, CII, and 19 City of Los Angeles FamilySource Centers to work together to provide coordinated and unified VITA services throughout Los Angeles County. We will work together in all aspects of VITA programming, from recruiting, training and assigning volunteers to providing direct tax preparation services to low-income clients. To begin the volunteer recruitment, KYCC has already begun laying the foundation by conducting a meeting with a number of potential partners regarding viability of such a project (over 20 different nonprofit organizations, schools and government entities came to the meeting including the IRS, Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City, FDIC, and AARP). We have commitments from two colleges (UCLA Extension and Cal State Long Beach) to provide volunteers, and we have a long history of working with local financial institutions (Hanmi Bank, Far East National Bank, and other members of FDIC’s Alliance for Economic Inclusion) to recruit and train volunteers. More specifically, KYCC is currently spearheading an effort with FDIC’s Alliance for Economic Inclusion (network of over 60 banks and nonprofit members) to increase the volunteer base for VITA, and this will ensure that our goal of coordinated volunteer management gets done within the next 12 months. With funding, KYCC will be able to focus on developing the volunteer management infrastructure, to recruit, train and connect volunteers with VITA opportunities. Creating this infrastructure will allow KYCC and the VITA collaborative to build a true collaboration and volunteer pool that will continue into the second year and beyond, till 2050.

Moreover, KYCC has the experience and knowledge necessary to implement the VITA collaborative and the volunteer program. Since 2006, KYCC has won the following accolades:

• 2010 “Model Site Award” and 2009 “Most Returns Prepared,” from Internal Revenue Service • 2010 “Highest Accurate Returns,” “Highest Direct Deposit,” “Most Returns Prepared,” and “Highest Customer Satisfaction,” from United Way of Greater Los Angeles • 2013-2014“Certificate of Appreciation,” from California State Controller John Chiang • 2013 “Board of Equalization Resolution Honor,” from California State Board of Equalization Jerome Horton • 2011 “Certificate of Honor,” from Office of the First Lady Maria Shriver

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

KYCC anticipates the following two major challenges in implementing a coordinated volunteer management program for our VITA collaborative. The first challenge is a technical one. Unlike “Earn It, Keep It, Save It” in the Bay Area, for example, Los Angeles does not have a single place where VITA volunteers can sign up for and get their assignments. Although there may be a simple fix such as creating a website, there are many logistical details that need to be coordinated and solved before an elegant website can handle all VITA volunteer sign ups and schedule assignments. KYCC anticipates dealing with this challenge by designating a Volunteer Coordinator who will work with the VITA collaborative to manage the logistical details required to set up a comprehensive volunteer management system for VITA services in Los Angeles. The Volunteer Coordinator will do the research necessary to see if a website is necessary or if a Google calendar or something akin to that can be utilized to make volunteer sign ups and assignments unified and efficient for all 24 VITA collaborative partners.

Moreover, another challenge facing KYCC and the VITA collaborative is the complex training required to become a VITA volunteer in the first place. Unlike other volunteer opportunities where just a compassionate heart and free time are required, VITA volunteers need to receive comprehensive training (both online and in class) as required by the IRS. Not only do they learn about the various different tax laws that govern filling out a tax return, but VITA volunteers also need to develop competence in IRS’s TaxWise software and e-filing system. These requirements often deter eager individuals from becoming actual VITA volunteers. So what can KYCC do to overcome this barrier to volunteer recruitment? As part of the VITA collaborative, KYCC will implement a comprehensive volunteer training program that makes it relatively easy for interested Angelenos to become trained VITA volunteers. As a VITA provider since 2006, KYCC has over eight years of experience providing effective volunteer training to our sites as well as to VITA sites of our collaborative partners.

What resources does your project need?

  • Network/relationship support
  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)
  • Education/training
  • Technical infrastructure (computers, etc.)
  • Community outreach
  • Quality improvement research