Author: Todd Goehle

Todd Goehle is the Community Engagement Director at PEACE, Inc., Syracuse/Onondaga County's Community Action Agency.

Taxing Barriers: Using Data to Overcome Predatory Tactics, Maximize Refunds, and Further Free Tax Preparation for all

Guest Article: Todd Goehle, Community Engagement Director, PEACE, Inc.

Albert Einstein quipped, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” If a Nobel Prize Winning Physicist can’t understand it, what are the rest of us supposed to do? Especially when we have to organize financial documents and navigate unfamiliar tax terms? The stakes are even higher for Central New York’s residents of under-resourced neighborhoods and those who have been historically excluded from opportunity. Where can one turn when legacies of discrimination (i.e. racism, ageism, ableism, and more) and neighborhood disinvestment continue to limit one’s access to a full tax return and stabilizing if not potentially transforming capital?

One critical resource is the free tax preparation service offered through the IRS Initiative named VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Grant Program). In Central New York, VITA partners with the CNY CA$H Coalition, a United Way of CNY Initiative, to “help low- to moderate-income individuals, persons with disabilities, elderly people, and limited English speakers file their taxes each year.” This year, any household making under $60,000 a year will be eligible for the service. To ensure confidentiality and quality, all VITA volunteers must pass a series of certification exams. As a CNY CA$H Coalition member, PEACE, Inc. offers the largest local location and one of only a handful of year-round, Free Tax Preparation sites in the state. Last year alone, more than 1600 households with an average annual income of $25,000 took advantage of PEACE, Inc.’s program.

VITA sites not only help underserved clients overcome the average $220 tax preparation fee and earn a full refund; They also combat predatory tactics such as refund anticipation loans and checks that impose excessive fees and take money out of the pockets of people working hard to make ends meet. For example, this past summer, a mother of two came to PEACE, Inc.’s Free Tax Prep Program. Earlier in the year, a national tax service prepared the mother’s taxes for the year. The firm charged $680 for the service and a loan that advanced her tax return. The story worsens. Like many during COVID, the woman required assistance e-filing her 2020 taxes. The firm again looked to charge $680, yet this time requiring an upfront fee to prepare any back tax return. If not for PEACE, Inc., the woman would have paid a total of $1360 in fees, more than 15% of the mother’s taxable income for the year.

To raise awareness about such practices and the additional Child and Earned Income Tax Credits (CTC, EITC) available to filers in 2022, the Central New York Community Foundation (CNYCF) and the EITC Funders Network partnered to fund a number of local organizations. CNYVitals previously discussed the social media efforts pursued by Layla’s Got You. PEACE, Inc. sought to recruit additional volunteers and to target traditionally underserved residents in high poverty neighborhoods of Syracuse. Data proved critical in 4 respects. First, PEACE, Inc.’s COVID-19 Community Needs Assessment and Chronicle from June 2020 identified the need for unrestricted capital in neighborhoods, where Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American people live. These same neighborhoods were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, census tract and IRS data showed those places where residents had yet to claim or historically don’t take advantage of tax credits. Third, members of PEACE, Inc. used CNYCF Life Needs Assessment Survey Data to identify those agencies with clients who would be good fits for the program because they responded that they “didn’t have enough money to meet their needs and to pay their bills.” Finally, analyzing internal data further justified PEACE, Inc.’s move to a year-round site. As revealed above, greater outreach yielded many new clients who required past tax season preparation or amendments in the offseason but lacked the funds to meet IRS deadlines.

Embracing a data-driven approach, PEACE, Inc.’s Free Tax Prep Program returned nearly 3 million dollars to the Central New York economy and an average tax return of nearly $2200. Perhaps more importantly, the program served far more low-income households than in previous years. Clients themselves shared how a quality return brought short-term stability and long-term economic mobility for their households. For example:

-KM, a mother of four, earned $14,879 at her job. Because of the stimulus and tax credits, KM received a tax return of $19,272. As KM explained, “the money will help me and my family get a new car, daycare to work more hours, and the supplies that the baby needs right now.”

-RT, a mother of 3, earned just over $25,000 at her job. Thanks to tax credits, RT earned a refund nearly equal her income, $18,374. As she shared, “I will be putting this refund on a new home for me and my kids. So I’m very thankful and more so excited that this year, I worked so hard and my family can use this to go towards a new home.”

With a new tax season upon us, the CA$H Coalition and PEACE, Inc. are seeking volunteer tax preparers, administrative assistants, interpreters, and greeters/screeners. Hours are flexible. Training is free. Want to make a true impact in our community? To learn more, visit or call 315.634.3756 today!


COVID-19 Community Needs Chronicle and Assessment Calls for Systematic Change

Written by Todd Goehle

On 4 June 2020, 26.5% of those hospitalized from COVID-19 in Onondaga County were Black. And yet, only 11.4% of the county’s total population is Black. As outlined within PEACE, Inc.’s COVID-19 Community Needs Chronicle and Assessment, the inequalities of our past continue to haunt our pandemic present. For the full assessment, visit the agency’s website. In the article below, Todd Goehle walks us through some of the major findings.


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of Central New York residents. But what does this mean? Who is struggling? And in what ways? How can different forms of data be used to mobilize resources? To adjust antipoverty services effectively? To help those who are most vulnerable? In May, PEACE, Inc.’s Community Engagement Team began to research these questions. Our efforts became the COVID-19 Community Needs Chronicle and Assessment.

The team analyzed data from national, state, and local foundations, governments, and sources. We met with community leaders, staff members, and agency clients. Client case notes were collected as well. The team also used the Central New York Community Foundation’s Life Needs Assessment Survey, receiving 230 responses over the course of 11 days in May. Through our research, the assessment comprehensively explores the pandemic’s effects on Physical and Mental Health; Youth, Family, and Senior Supports; Food and Nutrition; Employment; Education; Childcare; Housing; Access to Capital; Technology; Access to Information through informal networks and media; gender; and race and ethnicity.


Two findings are noteworthy. First, the majority of the problems seen during the pandemic are not new per se. Rather, COVID-19 has intensified long-standing structural insecurities and inequalities.

So what do these complicated ideas mean? It starts with this map of Syracuse:[1]


The map was produced in 1937 by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a federal agency that assigned neighborhoods 4 investment “ratings” and thus guided mortgage lending. The “riskiest,” rated “Hazardous” and colored “Red,” were based upon building conditions and racial demographics. Here, residents of color were unable to access federal loans. In “Definitely Declining” or “Yellow” neighborhoods, only 15% of residents could receive backing. Banned in 1968, “redlining” created obstacles for Black homeownership, a means for growing personal wealth historically. Redlining furthered financial disinvestment. And it deepened chronic poverty in communities of color.

Redlining, poverty, and issues of race, employment, and health have been well-documented in Syracuse.[2] More recent research by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that 3 of the 4 ZIP codes with the highest COVID-19 case rates had large portions of yellow or redlined neighborhoods.[3] Past and present disparities are linked. County health statistics also confirm how people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Onondaga County.

Onondaga County COVID-19 Cases by Race and Race as Percent of Population (4 June 2020)[4]


Race Percent Hospitalized by Race Race as Percent of Population
Black or African American 26.5% 11.4%
White 59.8% 79.9%
Other 9.2% 8.7%
Unknown 4.5% 0.0%


During the pandemic, cities across the country have declared racism as public health crisis.[5] With the legacies of redlining clear, the research of NYCLU and now PEACE, Inc. supports this claim for Syracuse.

A second key finding from the assessment: those most vulnerable in the COVID-19 pandemic lack multiple basic needs. Social Determinants of Health interact and reinforce one another to impact a person’s ability to remain healthy. Let’s address food and poverty.

Throughout the pandemic, the community has worked hard to provide nutrition for those in poverty. At PEACE, Inc., only 9.7% of nearly 230 Life Needs Assessment Survey respondents answered that they lacked food.[6] Still, as NYCLU noted, significant portions of those Syracuse ZIP Codes most impacted by COVID-19 are both “redlined” and classified as food deserts.[7] Poverty is layered. For example, nearly 40% of survey respondents “spend time alone more often than they would like.”[8] More than a third lack the technology to “meet needs for work, school, or other responsibilities.”[9] How might matters of socialization connect with hunger? The closing of Senior lunches and congregate meal sites has left low-income seniors both food insecure AND isolated.[10] Senior “Meals-to-Go” services have provided nutrition and smiles for those forced to remain at home. Yet the data reveals the smiles might only be temporary. The African proverb rings true, “One who eats alone cannot discuss the taste of the food with others.”

Other examples from the assessment are telling. An elderly woman raising 2 of her grandchildren can pay for groceries but lacks a car and has health conditions that make her nervous to ride the bus. A single mother struggles to cook -let alone to shop- due to a lack of home supports for her disabled child. A recently unemployed man who went to a food pantry for the first time now feels shame that he could not provide for his family. Food must be placed within wider contexts of poverty

For Action Steps, 3 policy suggestions can be recommended:

1) Services must be multifaceted, meet immediate need, and foster systematic change. The research reveals how trauma-informed services, local interventions where poverty is highest, and affordable Internet for impoverished families are just 3 examples that address long-standing inequalities and meet multiple needs.

2) Nonprofits must have difficult, inclusive conversations. By connecting the COVID-19 pandemic with longstanding inequalities, the assessment questions the effectiveness of our community’s antipoverty initiatives. It provides starting topics to advance conversation and change. And it supports the need for a) the rising community advocacy of recent months, b) more inclusive public forums, and c) equitable reform.

3) Building a Culture wherein Data is accessible to all. Like CNYVitals, the assessment provides public research and data. More transparency is needed, however. We hope critical assessments will spur partnerships and help local agencies value sharing data publicly. Defining the terms that we use to measure poverty can also challenge our underlining assumptions about it. Most think “Redlining” is bad. But can we explain it? Or connect it with the lived experiences of its victims? Trainings for staff, “lunch and learns” with the community, as well as monthly 1 to 2-page overviews are just some ways in which data can become more inclusive and equitable.

About PEACE, Inc.

Incorporated in 1968, People’s Equal Action and Community Effort, Inc. (PEACE, Inc.) is the federal designated Community Action Agency (CAA) for Syracuse, Onondaga County, and portions of Oswego County. The agency’s mission, “to help people in the community realize their potential for becoming self-sufficient,” defines its 9 antipoverty initiatives: Head Start, Family Services, Department of Energy and Housing, Senior Nutrition, Foster Grandparents, Senior Support Services, Eastwood Community Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Free Tax Preparation.

[1] Map retrieved from Central New York Community Foundation. (18 May 2018). “How the History of Redlining and I-81 Contributed to Syracuse Poverty.” CNY Vitals. Retrieved from

[2] See Ibid.; Onondaga County Health Department. (June 29, 2017). “Mapping the Food Environment in Syracuse, New York 2017.” Retrieved from; and Urban Jobs Task Force (UJTF) and Legal Services of CNY. (2019) “Building Equity in the Trades: A Racial Equity Impact Statement.” Retrieved from

[3] NYCLU. (May 18, 2020). “Testimony of the New York Civil Liberties Union before the New York State Senate and the New York State Assembly regarding the Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Minority Communities.” Retrieved from

[4] PEACE, Inc. (2020). COVID-19 Community Needs Chronicle and Assessment. Retrieved from

[5] Vestal, Christine. (15 June 2020). “Racism is a Public Health Crisis, says Cities and Counties.” PEW Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from

[6] PEACE, Inc.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid.

[10] Eisenstadt, M. (May 1, 2020). “Crews bring lasagna and connection to the locked-in elderly starved for a friendly face (video).” Retrieved from