Students help disadvantaged with tax returns

SOUTH BEND — Will Matthews knows most of his fellow Notre Dame accounting students will join prestigious firms after graduation, work with clients who pull in lots of money and make a pretty good buck themselves.p. That’s why he believes the university’s Taxpayer Assistance Program, which helps low-income area residents do their tax returns, is so important — it gives them a sense of perspective on how the other half lives.p. “A lot of people come from backgrounds where they’ve never experienced a person around them making under $30,000. It’s probably an experience for them,” said Matthews, a senior majoring in accounting.p. “What they can understand is one day they might want to open up their own firm to help low-income people.”p. Notre Dame, along with Saint Mary’s College, kicked off its annual Taxpayer Assistance Program on Feb. 12, helping those in the South Bend area who make less than $30,000 a year prepare their tax returns. Last year, the students helped more than 1,500 taxpayers fill out some 2,600 federal and state tax returns.p. “They now have a face on the working poor rather than a quick snippet on TV or a sound bite,” said Ken Milani, an accounting professor at Notre Dame who oversees the program. “I tell them it’s one of the key learning experiences that they’re going to come away with. They’re going to become aware of the fact that they’re very lucky and very privileged to be where they are.”p. Milani helped start the program in 1972 after two students walked into his office and asked him if he’d be interested in helping low-income residents fill out the paperwork for a special tax credit the state of Indiana offered.p. They worked five or six Saturday afternoons at one location the first year. The program now sets up shop at 10 different sites in South Bend and Mishawaka five days a week from the middle of February through April and involves more than 85 students from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. They’ve also branched into house calls for those who can’t make it out to the sites.p. Students who participate are required to take a training class offered through the university and take another 10 to 12 hours of training that focus on issues they’re likely to encounter with low-income clients, such as the earned income credit, child tax credits, and child and independent care credits.p. Milani also requires the students to write a paper reflecting on their experience.p. “I tell them it’s a privilege to serve the community and at the end of the day, when I look at what the program does for me and the university, that we get a lot more out of it than the taxpayers do,” he said.p. The program has been so successful that alumni clubs across the country began setting up their own versions three years ago, said Ed Trifone, the director of alumni community service programs for Notre Dame.p. Twenty-one clubs helped 1,500 families collect more than $1 million on tax returns last year, Trifone said, and chapters in eight more cities are planned for this year.p. “As a Catholic institution, we can say it’s part of fulfilling the gospel teachings of being Christlike and doing Christlike service,” Trifone said. “That is what somewhat separates us from other institutions of higher education. We like to think we’re not any better or any worse than any other alumni association, just a little different.”

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