Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, volunteers working with ISU Extension to Families file tax returns at no cost for Iowa individuals and families of lower incomes. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.
Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, volunteers working with ISU Extension to Families file tax returns at no cost for Iowa individuals and families of lower incomes. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.

Free tax preparation helps families claim millions in refunds

At tax time, the Iowa State University College of Human Sciences helps low-income families keep more of their hard-earned money.

Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, volunteers working with Iowa State Extension to Families file tax returns at no cost for Iowa individuals and families earning $51,000 or less.

That means a lot to people like September McElroy, a single mother of two who works as a secretary at Iowa Western Community College in Shenandoah.

McElroy has used the service for five years. Each year, she saves an average $150 that others pay to get their taxes done.

“It’s very beneficial, especially for people with low income who are single parents. It’s very important to keep all the money that’s due back to us,” McElroy said. “If we’re spending money getting our taxes done, that’s less money coming back to us and less money that’s going into the economy.”

Last year, 60 volunteers at 34 rural sites completed tax returns for 1,621 low- and moderate-income Iowans. Those families claimed more than $2.5 million in federal and state tax refunds, including more than $1 million from the Earned Income Tax Credit. The money bolstered family incomes and spurred economic development.

“When those families get those tax refunds, it typically has a ripple effect on the local economy,” said Mary Beth Kaufman, a family finance program specialist with Iowa State Extension to Families. “They usually turn around and spend it within their local community.”

About a decade ago, Iowa State stepped up to provide this free tax-preparation service to rural areas of the state that weren’t served by the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.

Today, tax-preparation sites operated or assisted by Iowa State Extension specialists and volunteers include those in Alta, Atlantic, Clarinda, Clarion, Corning, Cresco, Eagle Grove, Ellsworth, Guthrie Center, Hampton, Malvern, Mason City, Sac City, Red Oak, Shenandoah, Thompson, Toledo, Waukon, and Webster City.

Kaufman, who lives in Harlan and organizes the program in southwest Iowa, said some families weren’t even filing taxes before this free service was provided.

The assistance helps to ensure that qualified families receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable federal income tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and families. Studies have shown that every $1 of this tax credit generates economic activity up to $1.67.

“We are out here to improve the lives of families,” Kaufman said. “Not only are we contributing to families’ economic stability, but this program can also benefit a community in terms of economic development. As families get those refunds through doing their taxes, it supports them and their family. As they make purchases, it also helps a community.”

The program is so popular, Iowa State Extension has partnered with other organizations including United Way, community action agencies, hospitals, and community colleges to provide the needed services. Those organizations help to provide a location, staff, or volunteers for the free tax preparation.

People sometimes get emotional after receiving the free assistance.

“I have seen people brought to tears,” Kaufman said. “They are so appreciative of this service. Some of them get refunds that they never dreamed that they would get. They just think we’re fabulous because we’re giving them money.”

CONTACTS:

Mary Beth Kaufman, family finance program specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, 712-755-3104, mbkaufma@iastate.edu

Nancy Franz, associate dean, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to Families, 515-294-8876, nfranz@iastate.edu

Barb Wollan, family finance program specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, 515-832-9597, bwollan@iastate.edu

Lynn Campbell, communications specialist, Iowa State University College of Human Sciences, 515-294-3689, lynnc@iastate.edu

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    Volunteers working with Iowa State Extension to Families file tax returns at no cost for Iowa individuals and families earning $51,000 or less. Last year, 60 volunteers at 34 rural sites completed tax returns for 1,621 low- and moderate-income Iowans who claimed more than $2.5 million in refunds.


  • “It’s very beneficial, especially for people with low income who are single parents. It’s very important to keep all the money that’s due back to us. If we’re spending money getting our taxes done, that’s less money coming back to us and less money that’s going into the economy.”

    September McElroy