Many, if not most, tax professors and practitioners have been asked whether what we do is only about helping high-income individuals or businesses get out of paying taxes. Instead of offering the customary eye-roll, Ted Afield provides a thoughtful and compelling answer in Social Justice and the Low-Income Taxpayer. Afield’s article provides a detailed exploration of the role of low-income taxpayer clinics (LITCs) in providing clients with tax justice, and thus by extension, social justice. He then advocates for LITCs to be empowered to do more to improve social justice. This important piece should serve as a pillar for any efforts to support and expand LITCs across the country.
LITCs serve a vital function in the tax world: they provide vulnerable taxpayers with resources the taxpayers might otherwise not be able to access. These resources include representation, education, and advocacy, with a goal of ensuring that all taxpayers have at least some basic level of support available to them as they navigate the tax law. One hopefully need not explain the dangers to the tax system and to taxpayers of failing to provide that basic level of support. LITCs fund their activities through federal grants which require that the LITCs offer those three primary resources.
When detailing the value of LITCs, one could stop there; LITCs are a crucial tool for tax justice. Being that tool is their most important attribute. Afield rejects this narrow view, however, and challenges readers to expand their vision and recognize that LITCs are also a crucial tool for achieving social justice. What is social justice though—access to justice, remedying specific injustices, or developing a social framework that allows the individual to be a successful member of the community perhaps? While an important question, Afield submits that the answer does not really matter for his argument simply because LITCs are capable of promoting all shades of social justice.
LITCs provide access to justice for low-income taxpayers, most obviously by representing those taxpayers before tax tribunals. LITCs support low-income taxpayers in their pursuit of basic needs by removing the burden of tax complications in their lives that might serve to continue specific injustices weighed upon them. Finally, LITCs impact social frameworks through their advocacy and community engagement.
At the core of Afield’s argument is the idea that taxes affect all aspects of individual’s lives. Low-income taxpayers are particularly vulnerable taxpayers, so LITCs offer those taxpayers needed support. In so doing, LITCs advance not only tax justice but social justice as well. But there is more to be done, and Afield makes a compelling case to strengthen the LITCs’ social justice mission. By consolidating the LITC grant program with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, low-income taxpayers could be offered a more holistic support system that would more effectively advance their interests. Further, by expanding the grant program to allow an LITC to operate more sites, more low-income taxpayers could be reached as the burden of access to the LITC is reduced. Removing limitations on the types of taxes and taxpayers that LITCs can serve would also strengthen the LITCs’ ability to support vulnerable taxpayers.
Afield’s explanation of the value of LITCs in the fight for tax and social justice is convincing, and, as he concludes, recognizing that value is an important part of the case for expanding LITCs at academic institutions. If one is left with doubts, they arise from questions about any weaknesses of LITCs in this particular endeavor. The piece could discuss both internal and external limitations of the effectiveness of LITCs in achieving social justice goals in more depth; not being an expert, I won’t guess as to what those might be, but I do wonder about the costs of LITCs versus other types of organizations. That said, Afield persuades me that the benefits of LITCs vastly outweigh whatever those costs might be and that LITCs are a crucial part of our tax system and society that should be expanded. At a minimum, more people should come to understand that tax law is not just about reducing the tax burdens of the powerful; it affects the very fabric of society. As Afield aptly puts it: “Tax justice is social justice.”