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 https://www.peace-caa.org/programs/taxes/ or call 315.634.3756 today!