This post was originally submitted on March 1, but, due to the craziness of life, it is just now being posted. My apologies to the always fabulous Hillary Taylor for keeping this amazing blog post all to myself for so long.
In the United States, tax season is here again, and it’s here with a vengeance.
Back in October/November, I volunteered as tribute to become the Site Coordinator for our Branches Florida City VITA Program. The VITA Program is stands for “Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.” It’s an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) program that prepares US taxes for free for anyone below a certain income level (for 2014, this happens to be $60,000, meaning that 80% of Miami-Dade County qualifies for free tax preparation). It’s a great way for my organization to screen for potential coaching opportunities. If tax clients have their own small business, we might be able to connect them to our small business development program. If they’re using their tax refund money to start a “rainy day fund,” we can help them figure out the best savings mechanism. If they want to take away some of the collections debts they’ve accrued, we can tell them how we help people settle debts for less than the full balance. It’s the perfect opportunity to promote financial coaching. More than that, though, it’s a justice-oriented financial ministry for those who shouldn’t need to pay to have their taxes done, and might otherwise be taken advantage of.
Who knew the IRS had somewhat of a social conscience?
Prior to working at Branches, most of what I knew about taxes consisted of Sunday School lessons about Zacchaeus the tax collector in Like 19. All throughout my Sunday School life, I’d heard about how tax collectors were crooks Jesus’ time, but I never really understood it until I began filing taxes for other people. As it turns out, the same thievery that happened 2000 years ago continues to happen with allegedly “professional” tax preparing companies like Liberty Tax, Jackson-Hewett, etc.
Two thousand years ago, tax collectors were thought of as liars and cheaters. They were viewed similarly to the sketchy “buy here, pay here” used car salesmen we might think of today when we hear those adjectives. Two thousand years ago, a tax collector might come by your door and tell you that you owed 2 denarii to the government when maybe you really owed one. You have to trust what the tax collector says, though, because he works for the government. To not pay the tax collector was to mess with the Roman government, and nobody wanted that. So you pay the 2 denarii, the tax collector pays one to the government, and pockets the rest for his own personal expenses. Tax collectors were wealthy for this reason: taking advantage of people, especially the poor and uneducated. As it turns out, tax collection tactics aren’t all that different from the way they were 2,000 years ago…they just involve computers.
Paid tax preparers today are arguably some of the most predatory money handlers in our economy. They are also a huge reason for a lot of tax fraud. When people come in to file their taxes, lots of preparers will finagle a person’s tax return to where they have a refund, at which point they take a large percentage of that person’s money. For example, say a tax client didn’t withhold any money to file taxes, so they really owe the government $500. The preparer might coerce the tax client to claim someone in their family as a dependent so they can get a better refund and fudge the income documents so the person can get certain other tax credits. They might even claim an education credit or two, even if the person isn’t in school. Before the taxpayer knows it, they’re due a refund of $1,000. But the preparer charges $300, so the taxpayer gets $700 of a refund that they shouldn’t even have to begin with. Not only has the preparer lied to the client about their taxes, but they’ve also lied to the IRS. If the taxpayer gets audited (and about 1 in every 3 tax returns randomly do), the taxpayer has to pay the fine, not the preparer who filed the return incorrectly. It’s absolutely infuriating, especially if the taxpayer is a non-citizen hoping to apply for citizenship. These are the people who often don’t have an advocate on their side to explain how US taxes work. They are also more likely to be impoverished and under-educated.
I now understand why everyone in Jericho hated Zacchaeus.
As tax season continues on for another month and a half, I ask that you will help pray for our program. Pray that Branches Florida City can help put a lot of tax refunds back into our community, and not in the hands of predatory tax preparers. Pray that those who are experiencing issues will come to our site to have them sorted out. Pray also that those committing fraud will be convicted to do the right thing, and turn from their wrong-doing ways. We worship a God who has come to alleviate our debts (big and small), whether we owe them, or they are owed to us. We believe this is true, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
When Jesus absolved Zacchaeus of his sins, Zacchaeus repaid everyone he ever wronged with 2X the amount of money he owed them. He even gave away half his possessions to the poor. Imagine what modern day tax preparers would do if they encountered Christ in us?