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Tooting Our Own Horn and Remembering Janet Spragens and the Needs of Low Income Taxpayers

Posted on Feb. 3, 2015

20150131_135828Last week at the ABA Tax Section meeting in Houston, Keith was named the as recipient of this year’s Spragens Pro Bono Award. Since 2002, the ABA Tax Section recognizes a practitioner or firm for “outstanding and sustained achievements in pro bono activities” in tax law. Keith is a nationally recognized tax clinician who (in addition to his PT work) is widely known for his work with the low income taxpayer community, including his editing the ABA published book Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS, his work with newer clinicians, and his scholarship. Congratulations to Keith for the honor.

PT has its roots in tax clinics, with one of our objectives being the raising of issues that are common among lower-income taxpayers. Before Keith, I previously directed the Villanova Tax Clinic and I originally met Stephen when he was a student in the clinic.  This past year, three of our guest posters, Diana Leyden, Carl Smith and Frank Agostino, are also prior Spragens Award recipients, and I won the Spragens Award in 2007.

In coming up with the idea for the blog, one of our motivations was to provide a forum to discuss issues of tax administration and tax procedure that have a significant impact on the lower-income taxpaying community.  Taxpayers with resources have the means to at least navigate the often bewildering world of tax procedure.  That does not mean that Congress and IRS should be happy with the mess that represented taxpayers often have to navigate; at least taxpayers who can afford representation know that they can get help if they need it.

The steady decline in IRS service that has been exacerbated by funding cuts often hits hardest among taxpayers that do not have the resources to pay for assistance. Some of the details from this past 2014 National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) annual report are further reminder of the importance of clinics, VITA volunteers and others who do pro bono work for taxpayers.  For example, in its discussion of the number 1 most serious problem facing taxpayers, the steep decline in quality of service, the NTA discusses how an increased IRS workload, a decline in employees, and budget cuts have contributed to the IRS’s falling short in serving the needs of taxpayers. A summary from the preface to the NTA report relating to last year highlights the main problem areas:

  • 35 .6 percent of phone calls went unanswered by customer service representatives;
  • 50 percent of pieces of correspondence were not handled timely;
  • Virtually zero tax returns were prepared by IRS walk-in sites;
  • Only about 6 percent of the outreach and education budget of the Wage and Investment Division, which is responsible for helping approximately 126 million individuals understand and comply with their tax obligations, is devoted to activities that involve face-to-face contact with taxpayers. Thus, localized outreach and education have nearly disappeared;
  • In 13 states, no outreach and education employees were focused on the 65 million small business and self-employed taxpayers served by the Small Business/Self-Employed Division.

With Congress often loading up social policy (such as health care and poverty relief) within the tax code, poor service can have the effect of denying benefits to the very class of taxpayers Congress sought to benefit.In some ways, the $10 million that Congress has appropriated for the IRS to provide in matching funds to tax clinics is part of the growing trend of privatizing governmental services that the government has itself abdicated. I will return to that theme in a later post as I am working on an article building this out. In the meantime, the tax system is fortunate that it has many people who dedicate their time to those who are least able to help themselves.

Sidebar on Janet Spragens

The ABA Tax Section Pro Bono Award is named after Janet Spragens, the late professor at American University who was a pioneer in the tax clinic world. It is hard to believe but we are coming up on nine years since her untimely passing. For those of you who want a slice of what Janet meant to the tax clinic community and the tax bar at large, see a touching memorial to Janet by Nancy Abramowitz, her colleague at American University: Professor Janet Spragens: In Memory of a Friend, In Celebration of an Idea .

Janet inspired me to become a teacher and director of a legal clinic. I was fortunate to know her, and I miss her smile, friendship and guidance.  She was also the only person I know who could pull off wearing leather pants at a tax conference. She used her considerable talents and energy for the public good. One of my professional and personal highlights was when Janet asked me to accept the ABA Tax Section’s Pro Bono award on her behalf (acceptance speech I gave on behalf of Janet Spragens) when she won the ABA Pro Bono Award in 2006.

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