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Microgrant Supports Free Tax Preparation for SCI-EN Residents

May 24, 2011

Unlike many of us, Will Gonzalez does not have a sense of foreboding when tax season rolls around. For him, it is the best annual opportunity to improve the economic self-sufficiency of the low-income Philadelphia residents he serves, as well as the communities they live in.

Gonzalez is the Executive Director of Ceiba, a non-profit organization founded in 1989 to promote economic development in Philadelphia’s Latino community.

Ceiba – which was named after a massive tropical tree that has featured prominently in the history of many Latino cultures – offers, among other services, free tax preparation for low income residents.

This year, Ceiba was one of a number of community groups that received a small grant from LISC to support the program. It was one of four local organizations to receive the grants, which are being used to fund early action programs that showcase what SCI Eastern North can accomplish.

At first glance, free tax preparation seems like a worthy service, but perhaps a simple one.

But for Gonzalez and Ceiba, it serves as an initial point of contact with low-income residents, and gives them the opportunity to introduce working Philadelphians to all the services Ceiba offers: such as housing counseling, financial literacy workshops, and aid to undocumented immigrants who need help paying taxes and accessing basic financial services like banks.

“We help them with taxes, and then we help them with the rest of their financial lives as well,” Gonzalez said.

Thirty-six-year-old Carmen Alvarez is testament to Ceiba’s work. Alvarez, who had herself worked for an accountant in the past, has her taxes prepared by Ceiba, so she knows they offer a “good, professional service.” What’s more, though, Ceiba helped her buy one of the Pradera town homes built by Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha.

“They gave me housing counseling. The connected me with a United Way program that matched some of my savings to I could buy a home. They helped me get a home inspector,” Alvarez said. “They helped make it happen.”

Despite the existence of free tax preparation services like Ceiba’s, for-profit tax preparation companies have made a big business out of doing the taxes of the working poor. Often they lure cash-strapped residents into signing up for “early refund” loans with absurdly high interest rates. It’s a business model that drains cash from the neighborhoods that need it most, Gonzalez said.

“When we do taxes for people in the community, we make sure they get their maximum refund, and that refund stays in the local economy,” Gonzalez said.

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