Last month, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced an IRS Direct File program that will begin with a scaled pilot in 2024 to develop a free, simple, public digital tax filing service—the first of its kind in the United States.
This is a huge step toward equity and accessibility in tax filing. For those of us at Code for America who entered the civic tech space by way of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, this announcement also felt like a long-awaited victory for VITA and the people it serves. VITA has long been a leading proponent of making tax filing free and easy for marginalized people.
But this isn’t just a symbolic victory for VITA. For more than 50 years, VITA practitioners and volunteers have ensured that households with low and moderate income have access to free tax preparation at sites across the country. But the need has always outpaced VITA’s resources. Whether virtual or brick-and-mortar, VITA sites have limited capacity—these are volunteers after all!—and can never serve everyone who is eligible for VITA assistance.
Direct File will help balance the load. With Direct File, those who are able to prepare their own returns will be empowered to do so—using a filing tool that is streamlined, accessible without complicated eligibility rules, and guaranteed to be free. This will enable VITA to do what VITA does best: provide intensive, hands-on services for taxpayers with special circumstances or complicated tax situations—taxpayers who can’t or choose not to use Direct File. As VITA practitioners know, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to free tax preparation, and there will always be a population of filers who aren’t fully served by a self-help tool. Filers deserve to be able to choose the option that works best for them, and VITA will continue to be a critical option for many.
Direct File will enable VITA to do what VITA does best: provide intensive, hands-on services for taxpayers with special circumstances or complicated tax situations—taxpayers who can’t or choose not to use Direct File.
How Direct File and VITA can work together to best serve tax filers
VITA partners will play a key part in the roll out and ramping up Direct File in the coming months and next year. No one knows the ins and outs of how to serve tax filers with low income better than VITA practitioners. They can assist with client questions and concerns, provide feedback on the tool, report any bugs or issues that might arise, and help drive the right clients to the tool in order to make sure everyone gets access to the best free tax prep resources available to them.
There are also things that the Direct File tool can do to make it a strong complement and support to VITA. Referrals, for example, can go in both directions: Direct File should refer people to VITA when they need more intensive support, and VITA should refer people to Direct File when their cases are simple. VITA programs should be able to track these referrals and filed returns so they can incorporate them into their program statistics—an important measure, as these referrals can be counted toward their minimum return requirements for grant funding.
At Code for America, we’re committed to VITA’s role as a fundamental part of the landscape for people who can’t file on their own. GetYourRefund, a virtual VITA service, will again be available for interested VITA programs and filers in 2024. We believe strongly in maintaining a virtual VITA option in the long term. We’ll continue to work with our GetYourRefund VITA partners to make virtual VITA more efficient and effective, so its critical services are available to those who need it.
At Code for America, we’re committed to VITA’s role as a fundamental part of the landscape for people who can’t file on their own.
The future of free and accessible tax filing is full of options
We’re excited about the creation of an IRS Direct File tool that will expand filing options for tens of millions of people. With Direct File becoming part of the larger suite of free tax preparation and assistance options available, alongside VITA and other IRS services like Tax Counseling for the Elderly and Low Income Taxpayer Clinics, capacity for all these vital programs will be increased, relieving strain on volunteers and making the programs more accessible to people who need the most help.