Auxiliary Brain

March 2, 2009

SBS 399 SaveFirst reflection #2

Filed under: Uncategorized — probablyghosts @ 8:46 pm

Many of my shifts have been very slow, with only one or two people trickling in over the course of two hours. According to several senior volunteers and supervisors, sites are busy early in the month, and thin out more towards the end, since people file earlier when they need their refund check. (I wonder whether SaveFirst might be open to changing their volunteer scheduling policies – perhaps letting people sign up for shifts a week or two ahead, as available. This would allow flexibility for both volunteers and sites, in particular enabling organizers to concentrate volunteer effort when and where it’s needed.) I wouldn’t complain about this, but field experience is the focus of our class’s involvement with SaveFirst, and I don’t feel I got enough of it this year to draw any conclusions other than the obvious ones comprising the reasons for the founding of SaveFirst. Which, I suppose, is a good lesson – my experience this far has certainly allowed me to better “understand, appreciate, and engage actively in civic and public life.” Most surprising for me has been how relatively little volunteer effort and time it has taken to help taxpayers save so much money! According to supervisor David Rooney, the Bessemer site alone – the slowest one! – saved taxpayers “at least $25,000 in tax preparation expenses alone.

I have had the opportunity to learn more about employer/employee interaction. One returning client came to the New Hope site – a student and part-time worker . Once her W2 was entered, the calculated refund was alarmingly low – a fraction of what she’d received the year previous, when she’d only worked a summer job. I went to the supervisor with the w2’s and last year’s tax return. Turned out that her employer had not been taking out taxes for 2008, and she hadn’t known about it – I hadn’t noticed it when I was typing it in, either. The hourly wage wasn’t much more than 7.50. The supervisor said that Christian organizations were allowed not to deduct income taxes from employees’ wages; another volunteer mentioned that part-time workers often didn’t have income taxes taken out. I was shocked that she had worked that long (most of the year), for such a low wage, thinking her employers were taking out income taxes and expecting a refund that she wasn’t going to get. Lesson: Ask your employer if they’re taking out taxes from your wages! Don’t just assume! Luckily she still lives with her mother – no rent, no children. This was a valuable lesson for both of us.

Sometimes the clients have sad stories, which are told not so much by them, as by their employment histories. One fellow, a genial man in his late forties, came to the Bessemer site with a folder full of several years’ worth of W2’s, wanting to file for previous years (which is NOT what is meant by the term “back taxes”, as I found.) He’d worked for years as a maintenance man at a golf course, the terrain of which he described in loving detail. Then he’d found a job at the Wal-Mart. (Bumper sticker spotted recently: “Wal-Mart: Always Low Wages. Always.”) Sometime last year, he started collecting unemployment. And the addresses changed several times, too. I could tell that the last few years had been hard, since getting laid off from the golf course. But of course, it wouldn’t be polite to ask about struggles, about hardships – you have to let people open up their own can of worms, so to speak, when they’re ready.

One skill I would like to develop is my ability to conversationally and politely talk to people about their lives. I would love to know more about this man’s life. Asked about marital status, he casually mentioned a girlfriend with whom he lived for years. “Too long!” he exclaimed, then changed the subject – he had been living alone in one apartment or another in the same neighborhood (according to the addresses on his W2’s) near where he grew up in Bessemer (according to him.) His neighborhood is almost all elderly now, and he likes it that way – peace and quiet. He talked about his children, grown, with whom he gets along just fine. I wanted to know more, but perhaps a brief interview like this doesn’t entitle me to know more.

It’s strange, meeting these people and being privy to intimate details of their lives – their jobs and wages, their dependents, their disabilities, the crude quantitative history of the previous year of their life – and having to make small talk to relieve what can sometimes be an awkward situation, or sometimes finding a common chord, giving the open ear and encouragement needed to for the catharsis of complaint. This is the most rewarding experience – to meet people who recognize that their situation is unfair, rather than blaming themselves for their low income. Because our society equates wealth with personal worth, and makes poverty shameful, it’s doubly hard to talk about financial hardships. It’s heartening to meet those individuals who can recognize their worth despite a low income. Often, having dependents gives them that sense of worth. There is often a fierce pride in a parent’s eyes. I don’t want to wax poetic but it’s there. The strength of family is one powerful antidote to the misery of relative deprivation. This is what I want to draw out of people more – how they cope, and enjoy life, despite stress and disadvantages. Only by recognizing what makes people happy (which isn’t wealth, statistically speaking) can we design policies to strengthen communities.

Wilcox County is important to me as the setting of my stepfather’s childhood, as well as the quilters of Gee’s Bend, whom history will judge as among Alabama’s greatest 20th century artists. This place is home to a culture I would love to help in any way I can that it may thrive and recover from the shameful blot of White Supremacy and its handmaiden, Poverty. (Sorry, antique political cartoon moment) I have spoken briefly with David about expanding SaveFirst to Wilcox County. I envision this branch of the project involving several student trips over the weekend, both to provide tax service and to train local volunteers. I have not yet heard back from Sarah Louise Smith, as she is probably very busy this week, but hopefully I will be able to discuss this proposal with her in time to get things started for next tax season. I would also like to learn more about the Asset Building Opportunities component of SaveFirst. I believe strongly that narrowing the income gap is vitally important to building the kinds of communities, and the kind of world, in which more people can find freedom and happiness.

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