JOYCE BERG Faculty advisor for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program provides service to taxpayers and valuable lessons for her students.
April is approaching, and for many Americans it’s a month of teeth gnashing and dread as the tax bill comes due.
For Joyce Berg, it’s a teachable moment.
An accounting professor in the Tippie College of Business, Berg is the faculty advisor for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Each year, about 100 UI students—most of them accounting majors—prepare 1040 returns for qualified persons who live in Johnson County.
Berg says the program is a valuable service for both students and their clients. For the taxpayers, VITA provides the opportunity to have their taxes done by trained preparers for free. Since taxpayers must face some level of economic disadvantage to qualify for VITA help—low income, single parent, full-time student—most can’t afford to hire a professional, and can’t navigate the complex tax maze on their own.
“There are no easy returns for the taxpayer base we work with,” Berg says. “They have the Earned Income Credit, child tax credit, sometimes an ex-husband they split tax benefits with. We have grandmothers as the primary caregiver for their grandchildren, which has tax implications. Many of our clients are students and could be eligible for one of four different kinds of education tax benefits. And we’re still in the Midwest Disaster Area from 2008, so some might receive a tax benefit from that.”
For future accountants, the program is more than a chance to practice real-life number crunching. VITA also teaches them the “soft skills” of building a relationship with clients that Berg says can’t easily be taught in a classroom.
“A large part of an accountant’s job is communicating with other people, especially people who don’t speak the same financial language, and students learn how to do that with VITA,” Berg says. “Many of the clients also come from different backgrounds than the students, so helps them appreciate the diversity in our community.”
Berg became the advisor for VITA in 2005, and has since worked to expand its presence in the community. She increased marketing, partnered with various Johnson County social services agencies to spread the word, and expanded its reach by adding satellite operations at locations around Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty. She introduced electronic filing, too, making it easier for students to work on more complex returns.
The work has paid off. In her first year, VITA served 129 clients, most of them UI students, from its primary location in the Iowa City Public Library. Last year, the students prepared 922 returns from its multiple sites around the county, and she expects it to pass 1,000 returns this year. VITA clients received more than $1.2 million in refunds last year, “a lot of it money they might not have gotten back if they’d prepared their own returns.”
Berg’s service to the community goes beyond VITA. She’s also the faculty advisor and primary organizer for Tippie Build, a partnership between the Tippie College students and Iowa Valley Habitat for. Wearing her Tippie Build hat, Berg and her students have organized dozens of fund-raisers in Tippie that have raised more than $125,000 for home building, worked with student groups and departments across the college to find volunteers, and recruited accounting firms to let their employees volunteer at the build site.
As a result, hundreds of Tippie students, faculty, and staff and other volunteers have built two new homes in Iowa City for low-income families, in 2007 and 2009. They’re working on a third home this spring, with a dedication date planned for May.
On top of that, Berg also finds time to teach, publish her research, and co-direct the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) futures prediction market. Berg says the hard work is worth it, though, because her experiences with VITA and Tippie Build do more than just provide a community service.
“It’s great when we finish and we can see the results of our work, whether it’s a happy family moving into a house or an excited VITA client seeing how much of a refund she’ll receive,” Berg says. “And I love working with students in settings outside the classroom. They’re good people who like working hard and doing a good service to the community, and that’s inspiring for me.”
story by Tom Snee; photo by Tim Schoon