We lump taxes together with death as the two things we dread and can be certain of. But I would like to suggest that we think of taxes as a way of helping our neighbors who may be in need and improving our schools which are failing to get the job done. We pay less in taxes than most of the people in the “developed” countries and yet we complain the loudest of all.
Consider this excerpt from an article in the British paper The Guardian in which the author suggested that Brits — who also dread taxes — think about Sweden where the attitude toward taxes is downright positive. In a recent poll, it was revealed that a growing number of Swedes are pleased to pay taxes because they feel their tax money does so much good. As the article went on to explain:
One way to examine the issue is to compare state help provided by the British government to one which traditionally charges much higher taxes: Sweden. Swedes support the second-highest tax burden in the world – after Denmark’s – with an average of 48.2 per cent of GDP going to taxes. Yet Sweden, along with equally high-taxing Denmark and Norway, tops almost every international barometer of successful societies. Swedes’ personal income tax can be as little as 29 per cent of their pay, but most people (anyone earning over £32,000) will pay between 49 and 60 per cent through a combination of local government and state income tax.
And yet, the Swedes are happy, the article goes on to explain. What angers them is people who won’t pay their taxes and therefore fail to support national programs that help make the country strong, their kids smarter, their economy healthier, and the people well off.
But we are not Sweden, and even though we pay less income tax (between 10% and 35% of our income) we don’t have comparable schools or the average income and high standard of living the Swedes do — though we may have more toys. Also, we have a much greater disparity between the higher taxes paid by the people in the lower middle-class and the taxes paid by the very wealthy. In addition, the latter group is growing in its wealth and the former group is losing and joining the growing ranks of the poor. In a word, the gap is widening between the rich and the poor in this country and the middle class is slowly disappearing into that gap.
As the gap widens in this country between the rich and the poor — and as the middle class gradually slips into that gap — it behooves us to consider what is going on. It is astonishing that the ratio in this country between the highest paid CEO’s and the average worker is 475:1 while in the entire world the second highest ratio is Venezuela at 50:1. Britain is 22:1 and Germany is a mere 12:1.
The standard excuse for this incredible disparity is that CEOs have to be paid huge amounts because of the competitive nature of Big Business — if we don’t pay the man or woman (usually the former) at the top enough money they will go elsewhere. In fact, that has become an excuse for hiring people at the highest levels not only in business but in such seemingly unrelated activities as coaching college football. But that’s a topic for another time.
The sad truth remains that the very rich in this country are becoming so at the expense of the middle classes who are, as a consequence, becoming poorer and poorer. While the rich grow richer and increasingly stash away more of their wealth in off-shore bank accounts (thereby giving the lie to the claim that they will create jobs with their tax breaks and subsidies and help the economy recover) the number of poor increases. In fact, the poverty levels rose 15.1% (46.2 million) in 2010 and 15.7& in 2011. As a recent story in Huffington Post tells us:
The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.
The number of homeless grows daily and those who find themselves suddenly out of work struggle to find a minimum wage job — or two — in order to keep their homes and feed their kids. We need to consider who these people are. They are our friends and neighbors who have tripped over a weak economy. And increasing numbers of them are joining the ranks of the poor who need our help. Yet all we can think about is cutting taxes and eliminating social programs because we know of a few extreme examples of welfare abuse. We tend to lump the poor together and refer disdainfully to them as “bums” and “crack-heads” who spend their time having more and more children. This stereotype is a gross misrepresentation and not worthy of a charitable nation.
Those who work with the hard-pressed and homeless have a perspective that the rest of us can learn from. One such person sent me the following note based on his experience working with the homeless:
The homeless have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than those who are housed. Throughout my volunteer work with homeless families beginning in 1999, I have witnessed people who try to paint all of the homeless people with a broad brush based on the image of a panhandler on the street. The panhandler is just a small percentage of the homeless population. The agency I do most of my work reported in its July 30 fiscal year-end results – 84% of the homeless families they help are employed with a median average family wage of $9.00 an hour. A living wage for an individual is just under $10 an hour and for a family is just under $17 an hour (note this statistic varies by region).
Imagine yourself working at a well-paying job with a happy spouse and two kids in private school. Your home is mortgaged to the hilt and you have a fairly fat credit card bill to pay each month. But you can manage because you have a good paycheck coming in each week. Then imagine that one day you are called into a room by your boss who sits you down with the H.R. person and the company attorney and tells you that he deeply regrets he will have to “let you go.” You are given severance pay and there are always unemployment benefits to tide you over, but they will run out. In this economy it is quite possible that you will not be able to find any job at all except one that pays minimum wage with no benefits. While all this is happening to you and several of your fellow-workers, your boss is given a raise and more stock options and is now among the enviable 1% — those who control 43% of the wealth in this country. How do you cope? Suddenly, it’s not someone else’s problem!
My example is fiction, of course, but in the world “out there” this sort of thing is happening with alarming regularity. In fact, I have a friend to whom this very thing has recently happened. He is a man with a Master’s degree and years of experience who now finds himself homeless and without an income. It is a serious problem. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is widening and while our anger over the obscene wealth of the few is perfectly justified, our attitude toward the poor needs to be tempered with compassion and the spirit of charity. And we need to rethink our attitude toward paying taxes because you or I may well be the next person in need of help.