UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — November ushers in the holiday season, a time for making lists and checking them twice. Cathy Bowen is preparing too, but the season she is planning for does not evoke visions of sugar plum fairies, eggnog by the fire, or sleigh rides. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"Tax season is a time nearly everyone dreads," said the professor of agricultural and extension education and consumer issues in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "But, it is especially worrisome for those who don't have the resources to seek professional guidance."
To help those individuals and families, Bowen established Penn State's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, an Internal Revenue Service-sponsored initiative. Approaching its 15th year, the initiative, which is currently housed in the college's Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at the University Park campus, provides free tax preparation and electronic filing services to income-eligible taxpayers, including Penn State students, staff and retirees.
Taxpayers also receive financial coaching on accessing free credit reports, information about community and government resources available to assist families, and adjusting W-4 withholdings. The goal, Bowen said, is to improve financial literacy so taxpayers have more control over their finances and the confidence to prepare their own returns at some point.
"Being able to complete a basic tax return is a life skill," she said. "We include our clients in the process so that they can learn. We use two computer monitors so they can see the entries in their return as they are being made.”
In the program's infancy, Bowen was the sole tax preparer, serving about 20 clients each year in Centre County. Fast forward to the 2017 filing season, when 40 volunteers prepared a total of 740 returns, representing nearly $950,000 in economic impact.
"The program has grown because there is a great need and because we have established confidence, trust and continuity for the people we have served," said Bowen, who cited another feather in the program's cap — Penn State VITA was the first electronic filing site in Centre County.