3.30.16 Financial Services

The Center for Economic Progress: Offering Free Financial Education & Services for Working Families

By: Lindsey Carman

The CrunchThe Center for Economic Progress (CEP) helps low-income individuals and households build economic stability and share in the nation’s prosperity through trusted tax and financial services — for free. Its vision is to help working families — those earning between $25,ooo to $50,000 a year — access the financial opportunities they need to succeed. 

When this group first set up shop in 1990, its mission seemed simple enough: Help homeless families and individuals access much-needed services. Since then, the Center for Economic Progress, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, has helped low-income working families take control of their personal finances with free tax help and other financial services. In the process, it has gained more than $560 million in tax refunds for their clients. And the group does it with a dedicated staff of 50 and thousands of volunteers.

CEP: Adding $600 Million to 400,000 Households

For over 25 years, the Center for Economic Progress has helped Illinois working families gain a foothold on finance ladder in Illinois by providing low-wage workers with free, high-quality tax preparation and an alternative to paid tax preparers. Clients are families who make less than $50,000 a year and individuals who make less than $25,000 annually. One in three Illinois residents fall into that category.

“This idea was about financial stability and security and helping people get a leg up,” said David Marzahl, the president and CEO of the Center for Economic Progress.

With the help of thousands of finance experts who volunteer their time, the Center continues to grow its resources and offer new programs every year.

A photo of Center for Economic Progress' website

The Center for Economic Progress offers courses, classes and workshops that help low-income families climb the finance ladder.

The Center’s tax clinic helps clients competently deal with an IRS dispute, offers tax training for small businesses to establish sound business practices, and build their knowledge of record-keeping and self-employment tax laws.

“We’ve generated $600 million in added value through the people we’ve served in 400,000 households,” Marzahl said.

Building a Path to Financial Stability With Information

Managing one’s personal finances doesn’t happen by accident. It calls for understanding complex tax laws. At the heart of the services offered by the Center for Economic Progress is its mission to promote financial education and sound money practices. In addition to tax preparation assistance and tax clinic, the CEP offers its clients a legal clinic and financial capability program, which help cut ties to predatory financial services that typically target low-income populations.

Its year-round workshops help clients set financial goals, create spending plans, access safe and affordable bank products (like bank accounts and small personal loan), and review and correct credit reports that improve their credit scores. The tax assistance program helps more than 20,000 people prepare taxes for free annually.

A photo of volunteering at CEP

Without passionate volunteers, this non-profit wouldn’t be as successful.

“We help with everything, from one-on-one financial coaching, to financial awareness and education workshops, to helping people open up savings accounts, checking accounts, prepaid cards, whatever the product they may need,” Marzahl said. “We work with a dozen banks and credit institutions to get people access to the financial mainstream through this program.”

Helping Families Break Through a Tough Economy

The economic decline of the past few years has contributed to the country’s consumer debt, which stood at about $3.4 trillion as of May 2015, according to Federal Reserve statistics.

Behind every workshop and service is a passionate volunteer who wants to help low-income families and individuals gain financial freedom. Volunteers are financial coaches, credit geeks, savings coaches, tax preparers, and tax representatives, who work for free and have the client’s best interest at heart. Without these volunteers, the organization wouldn’t exist.

A photo of Free Tax Help at CEP

Check out the Center for Economic Progress today.

“It’s been a very tough economy for 10 years now, so people face a lot of challenges and we have to adapt with a lot of those challenges,” Marzahl said.

Building Stable Communities, One Family at a Time

At the Center for Economic Progress, understanding and fixing financial problems is key to a stable future. From workshops to coaching, this organization helps working families succeed. The Center aims to help build strong communities with every family it empowers with newfound financial awareness.

“These are challenging economic times, and we all have to come together to move people up the financial ladder,” Marzahl said.

For more information on volunteering, donating or participating in classes at the Center for Economic Progress, please visit