Alica Whitmore was a young single mom with suffocating bills and student loans when she visited the Prepare + Prosper office at the Urban League in north Minneapolis for help with her 2011 taxes.
“I was working three part-time retail jobs,” Whitmore recalled. “I grossed about $16,000 that year.”
Stressed about the future, Whitmore met a calm certified volunteer tax preparer who helped her complete her return. For free.
“I got back more than $1,000, thanks to the [federal and state] earned income tax credits,” Whitmore recalled. “More importantly, I got on to Prepare + Prosper.”
After a look at Whitmore’s credit report and a discussion of her budget, Whitmore’s tax preparer recommended she join Prepare + Prosper’s money-mentoring program.
“I pulled my head out of the sand and started to lose my fears about money,” she recalled.
Whitmore was empowered. She first volunteered and then took a $25,000-a-year counseling job with the St. Paul-based nonprofit.
“We find people are incredibly savvy with limited resources,” said Tracy Fischman, longtime executive director of Prepare + Prosper. “We hope to prevent trouble. We help people prepare and see that they have a [better] financial future.”
Prepare + Prosper, with a small budget of $2.3 million funded largely by foundation, business and individual donors, has a significant impact.
In 2018, Prepare’s 635 volunteers helped 12,500 taxpayers file nearly 28,000 returns. They received $24 million in refunds, or about $2,000 per taxpayer.
Prepare + Prosper, which employs 19 full-time and about 40 tax-season employees, is in a growth industry of working-poor folks.
Congressional budget cuts over the last dozen years have forced the IRS to cut tens of thousands of auditors, collectors and customer-service agents. Working stiffs receive less help, the wealthy and corporations face fewer audits and the so-called “tax gap” has ballooned to an estimated $400 billion-plus annually, thanks to mistakes, tax avoidance and cheating.
Prepare + Prosper, with its partners, is helping to fill the void for low-income folks who need tax preparation and financial counseling.
For example, the Minnesota Department of Revenue works with Prepare + Prosper to promote free tax-prep services and software on the department’s website.
“Free tax-preparation services from Prepare + Prosper and the Minnesota Department of Revenue help build community wealth,” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said at a February event.
Whitmore also is proof that people more confident of their finances also can figure out ways to prosper.
Whitmore, 35, left her job at Prepare + Prosper several years ago to train as a carpenter at Summit Academy, the Northside job-training nonprofit.
Today, she is a two-year Northside homeowner and a commercial carpenter heading toward a career that could pay her up to $70,000 a year in a couple more years.
“I have two years in my house,” Whitmore said, who remains a Prepare volunteer. “I feel a lot more comfortable about my life. I have friends and elderly neighbors who I can help [with repairs] and I also volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.”
Amazing how a little tax help and financial counseling can kindle a more successful person. And this one pays it forward.
Moreover, a couple of years ago Prepare + Prosper and Sunrise Banks launched a multiyear initiative to provide thousands of low-income families with an alternative to payday lenders and check-cashing operators.
The Financial Access in Reach (FAIR) plan is aimed at providing “financially underserved” people with access to a checking, savings and small-loan program at a modest cost.
“The financial inclusion gap is a big problem,” Fischman said at the time. “It negatively impacts people’s economic footing, well-being, health and more. People need financial products and a system that work for them and not against them as they strive to be financially successful.”
Participants pay $3 per month for a checking account with no minimum balance and no overdraft fees. They get a savings account and may borrow up to $500 at 8% interest.
That’s a far cry from the triple-digit effective rate that can be earned by payday lenders on cascading, multiple loans plus fees in a year.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.