Thursday, November 22, 2012

190. Taxes don't follow opinions

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was arrested and spent the night in jail for not paying his poll taxes over the course of the previous six years. For Thoreau, it was a matter of principle and he refused to pay his tax in protest of the government's role in slavery and the Mexican-American War.

While the incidence in part provided some background to the brilliant essay on civil disobedience, it also offers insight to the accountability of how our tax dollars are spent. Thoreau was not willing to support a government which engaged in activities which offended his conscious.

Many others have made the same connection.

If I could pick and choose where my tax dollars end up, I would certainly prioritize--and likewise, I would rarely approve any of my tax dollars being spent on war.

Since we are not afforded such discretion, all of our federal tax dollars, unless specifically designated, go into a large fund which supports all activities of the government. That means I pay for things I do support and those which I adamantly do not support.

Considering the number of taxes collected by our federal government, the amount of our taxes spent on any one government activity is probably quite small. Sure, I pay the president's salary, and for a bridge, or a tank--but individually it is probably not more than a few cents--or maybe even a fraction of a cent.

So while collectively the American taxpayers fund a lot of government activities, our personal contributions to any one particular activity is relatively small.

This point is particular to the obsessive and largely fiscal conservative disdain for paying welfare benefits to the less fortunate segments of our citizenry. The argument usually stems around the fact that "they got an education and they worked hard for their money," and do not feel that it is appropriate giving it to "lazy people who play the system." The stereotypes, often including offensive racist and prejudicial attitudes, only get worse from there.

The projection of exaggeration seemingly insinuates that these hard working people are each supporting dozens of lazy families for years on end. Understanding that each of our tax dollars is spread thin across the federal budget, I wondered how much people are really paying for welfare benefits. My inclination was that indeed it was severely exaggerated, but I wanted to understand.

Fortunately, the federal government now has a website which projects how each of our tax dollars is actually spent. The website entitled "Your 2011 Federal Taxpayer Receipt" allows users to put in their financial information to estimate how much of their taxes go for generalized federal expenditures.

Not surprisingly, and again depending on individual income and deductions, around 25% of our taxes is spent on national defense. This includes costs like military wages, operating expenses, research and weapons.

Job and Family Security, which includes a host of social programs, including what is commonly known as food stamps and temporary assistance for needy families, totals about 19%. The food stamp and temporary assistance programs, which many find most offensive of the social programs, only totals $44 for a family of three making $50,000 per year.

While these are just estimates and the actual amount moves with changes in income level, it is hardly the individual burden that many suggest. I have always considered this expenditure of my tax dollars to be a worthy social cost. After all, there may be a time in which I ask for the same consideration of my neighbor.

Certainly, I understand there are people who abuse the system--lazy folks who do not deserve the help. While opportunity and good fortune may fluctuate, all of us should be asked to make an effort. I would also protest my dollars being spent on those who do not at least try. Unfortunately, this determination is made on a sliding case-by-case basis, and I am willing to provide the support however it ends up.

And, to the parallel fiscally conservative argument about the wealthy paying more taxes, if I am ever very wealthy--through either hard work, or risk investment, or good fortune--I am happy to pay more taxes. Personally, and regardless of how much I pay, I would rather that more were spent on food stamps and less on national defense, but I am not ready to spend the day in jail to insist upon it.

In fact, to rest the conscious, I will take someone else's share of the job and family security--and he or she can pay for the tanks.

No comments:

Post a Comment