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United Way of Northern New Jersey-INCOME Success Stories

Our Work » INCOME

Impact Stories

DonateRead about how our Income impact is helping the community.

Putting Money Back in ALICE’s® Wallet

Lynette, a single working mother, can’t wait to file her taxes each year. The sooner she files, the sooner her refund arrives.

She counts on that money to keep her family afloat; covering basics her paycheck cannot. The refund – in the thousands – means her two young children can also access quality educational experiences that otherwise would be out of reach. While she’s working full time, her children can attend afterschool programs and summer camp, expanding their horizons and giving her peace of mind.

Taxes Lynette“Without that refund, I can’t survive,” she says.

Lynette, a full time clerk at a local police department, represents the one-in-four New Jersey households United Way of Northern New Jersey calls ALICE - Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are hardworking residents like Lynette who earn above the poverty level, but less than what it costs to afford basic necessities.

Each year United Way and its partners provide free tax preparation for nearly 6,000 struggling families, bringing $5.7 million back to clients in refunds. The average refund is $1,650. This service also saves clients $1.2 million in filing fees.

“Getting my return done and knowing I don’t have to pay $200 to $300 for someone to prepare my taxes is a lifesaving thing,” says Lynette, who used to pay to get her taxes done. “It was a financial strain especially when you need every penny and you are stretching it for next year.”

Setting Aside Savings

For Jessica, another client, her refund means her son with special needs could be well cared for if something were to happen to the single mother. She was able to create an emergency fund to support meeting his needs.

“It’s the only way I ever get to save any money,” says Jessica, a full time office worker. “It’s scary to think that if I got sick or if I wasn’t able to work for awhile – I don’t really know what I would do.”

Both Lynette and Jessica saw their refunds boosted significantly by receiving critical tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit. United Way’s service ensures clients receive everything they are due. According to the IRS, one-in-five households in the United States eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit does not claim it, leaving an estimated $1 billion unclaimed.

Jessica says her United Way tax preparer was extremely thorough. “She went through everything with me, asked a lot of questions and made sure I was getting back everything I was entitled to,” Jessica recalls.

Claiming Vital Credits

The EITC is considered the country’s most effective pro-work and anti-poverty tool, proven to lift families out of poverty and boost employment and earnings. Both the EITC and the Child Tax Credit can be critical for ALICE’s survival, particularly for single parents getting by on one income. This year, United Way helped families in our region claim more than $2.2 million in these two tax credits.

“When one emergency can put a family at risk of losing everything and falling into poverty, these credits can be their one lifeline,” says United Way Senior Vice President Kiran Gaudioso. “We all benefit when our ALICE neighbors can stay on a path to financial stability.”

United Way teams up every year with the IRS, NORWESCAP, Center for Prevention and Counseling, Greater Providence Missionary Baptist Church and IRS-certified volunteers to provide free tax preparation, saving 6,000 ALICE and households in poverty an estimated $1.2 million in filing fees. This collaboration also resulted in more than $5.7 million in tax refunds in 2015, including more than $2.2 million claimed in eligible tax credits. Click here for more information.

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Millions Back into ALICE’s Wallet and the Community

For a group of Centenary College accounting students volunteering as tax preparers, income tax filing season was less a course in crunching numbers and more a lesson about real life.

Centenary College StudentThrough a strategic partnership between United Way of Northern New Jersey and Centenary College, accounting majors are offered the opportunity to become IRS-certified volunteer tax preparers. In return, these students helped United Way and partners provide free tax preparation and filing services to 5,150 ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and poverty-level households across the region.

Taxpayers were saved an estimated $1 million in fees and received $5.6 million in refunds that can be pumped back into the local economy.

“I got a glimpse of the real world,” says junior Michael LoCascio, 20, a dual accounting and finance major. “This program made me realize how many people you see each day who could be struggling.”

Boost Workers, Strengthen Communities

More than one quarter – 27 percent – or 122,000 households in the five-county region of Morris, Somerset, Suburban Essex, Sussex and Warren are ALICE or in poverty – unable to afford the basics, according to United Way research.

United Way’s free tax preparation program ensures residents get back all the hard earned money they are due, making sure qualified taxpayers receive the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. Both credits are among the country’s most effective pro-work and anti-poverty tools, proven to lift families out of poverty and boost employment and earnings.

“We have a great need to provide this service for individuals who can’t afford the $200 or more it costs to get their taxes done, but it’s also so money isn’t left on the table that should be turned back into the community,” says Centenary College Assistant Professor of Accounting James Ford, who oversees the college’s partnership with United Way. “The community benefits when residents can use their return to pay their rent and bills and go food shopping.”

Meet ALICE: Uncovering Financial Hardship

Students say they gained insights and skills that no book or classroom lesson could impart. Senior Katie D’Arcy, 20, also a double accounting and finance major, says her eyes were opened to the need in the community by serving as a tax volunteer. D’Arcy says that one client who was self-employed, but was struggling to stay afloat got an infusion of hope when she learned she was getting a $5,000 return.

“She was so excited saying, ‘This is going to help me so much by paying for bills, going grocery shopping and helping out my family,’ ” D’Arcy says. “Here I think I’m doing a little thing by volunteering and it turned out I was having a huge impact.”

The students say they worked with clients who had never before known they were eligible for the tax credits, which help to either eliminate taxes potentially owed or boost a client’s refund. Overall, United Way volunteers secured nearly $1.4 million in Earned Income Tax Credits and $700,000 in Child Tax Credits.

Likewise, Jenna Fredericks, 20, a senior double major as well, says she learned that poverty isn’t just the homeless you may see on the streets – it’s people who work, but still struggle and want a good home and life for their children.

“It’s easy to make assumptions about a person, but you never know what is really happening in their life,” Jenna says. “This experience definitely helped me grow as a person,” she adds.
Support United Way and partners to help provide free tax preparation and filing services to 5,150 ALICE and poverty-level households across the region. Click here to learn more.

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We Help People Become Financially Stable

“I love my job,” says Nora, a support counselor at a group home for adults with special needs and disabilities.

Nora is there to help these adults become more independent by teaching essential life skills such as cooking and doing laundry. She also drives and accompanies them to their Noraappointments and guides them through their everyday tasks. “It is very rewarding. They help me to grow and see things differently. I think they help me more than I help them,” Nora says.

Despite working full time, Nora struggles to make ends meet. She takes on extra work at another group home, working nights, overnights, and weekends — sometimes working 14 consecutive days before getting a day off.

But it’s still not enough. Nora earns less than what the United Way ALICE Report finds is needed to survive. After she pays for the basics such as rent, car insurance, and groceries, Nora, a divorced mother of three, typically has little to nothing left.

Save More, Struggle Less

United Way of Northern New Jersey’s free tax preparation service is one way Nora found to help her save her hard-earned money. United Way — which teams up with the IRS and community partners to provide free tax preparation from IRS-certified volunteers — discovered that Nora was missing out on thousands in unclaimed tax credits.

“Sometimes when you hear the word ‘free’ you think it won’t be good. But the people (doing United Way tax preparation) really know what they are doing,” she says. “They are experts and want to help you.”

Nora used the bulk of her refund to pay down a used car loan and debt on her credit cards. She continues to just scrape by. Any additional need that arises is one too many, which is why she hasn’t replaced the worn tires on her car yet. “If my car broke down, I would need to call out from work. There’s no bus or public transportation,” she says. “I couldn’t keep calling out. It would be a problem.”

Strengthening the Financial Foundation for All

Like Nora, nearly one-third of northern New Jersey households are walking a financial tightrope, unable to meet expenses, deal with unexpected hardships, and save for the future. United Way calls these struggling families and individuals ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). United Way research finds that more than half – 53 percent – of all jobs in New Jersey pay less than $20 an hour ($40,000 a year if full time) and low-income jobs are projected to dominate the state’s economy for the foreseeable future. Yet, the average income needed for a family of four to survive in New Jersey is more than double the official U.S. poverty rate.

“United Way is helping ALICE and low-income families set a more positive course and achieve financial independence through financial literacy, mentoring programs, and free services like tax preparation,” explains Lynn Weckworth, Director of Income for United Way of Northern New Jersey.

Along with filing her taxes, United Way helped Nora open a savings account. On a path to becoming financially stable, Nora now has $20 from her pay automatically deposited into the account.

“United Way helped me so much — I saved by not having to pay for my taxes to be done, and they got me money back.”

United Way helped low- and moderate-income families claim more than $5 million in tax refunds in 2014, including more than $2 million claimed in eligible tax credits. Nearly 5,000 returns were filed, saving residents an estimated $1 million in tax preparation fees. Click here to learn more.

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