The Common Good
April 2010

You Get What You Pay For

by Jennifer Hope Kottler | April 2010

Taxes are worth it -- but ours are weighted against the poor.

Maybe I’m one in a million, or at least a hundred thousand, but I actually do not mind paying taxes. Really.

I’m more than a little annoyed at the so-called “tea party” participants who claim that they are subject to “taxation without representation.” I know a bit about this; as a resident of the District of Columbia, I have no voting representative in Congress. Just because you don’t like the people your district elected doesn’t mean you are not being represented. You have someone to call, someone to vote in or vote out. I don’t. Another objection of most so-called “tea party” folk is to the taxes their representatives have voted for—and I think that objection is wrong, too.
I feel paying taxes is one of the most patriotic things I get to do as a citizen of the United States. I’m proud of my country. My taxes pay for roads, schools, police protection, trash pickup, health care, and social services for seniors and people with disabilities. Taxes create the kind of community that I want to live in.
Now, here’s where I’m going to get controversial: We overtax the poor and undertax the wealthy. It’s a fact—ask billionaire investor Warren Buffett. He has offered to bet a million dollars that no member of the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans can prove that the group pays a higher percentage of income in payroll taxes than their receptionists do. This is a very safe bet. Well over two years later, he’s had no takers.
Billionaires paying a lower tax rate than the folks who answer the phones? I don’t care what your politics are; that’s just unfair.
And Buffett is just talking about federal payroll taxes (income, Social Security, and Medicare). On top of that, many of the taxes you and I pay—sales, property, excise, energy—are not based on our income, but on our consumption. The same sales tax is added to everyone’s purchase regardless of the buyer’s ability to pay—and this disproportionately affects the poor, who spend the highest percentage of their income on daily necessities. Same for property taxes. They are based on the value of your house, sure, but the taxing body doesn’t ask what your income is before they calculate your tax. It just is what it is.
One of the things that helps low-income families with their disproportionate tax burden is the earned income tax credit (EITC). The EITC assists working families by providing a credit that can be applied to federal income taxes. If the family qualifies for more credit than they owe in income taxes, the extra can be refunded to them—helping to offset some of the sales, property, and other kinds of taxes for families who pay far too high a percentage of their income in taxes. Conceived by President Nixon and enacted by the Ford administration, the EITC was expanded under Ronald Reagan, who called it “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job-creation measure” that Congress ever passed.
Taxes are the dues that we as Americans pay to ensure the common good. They ensure that my aging parents have medical care and that my friends with disabilities have the services they need to live independent, fulfilling lives. They help create the kind of country that I want to live in—a country that provides for those in need, regardless of income. That’s why I don’t mind paying taxes. I love my country.
Rev. Jennifer Hope Kottler is head of policy and organizing at Sojourners.
Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Resources

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)