Who Deserves a Break Today?

by Tom Granger tomgranger@mindspring.com

What could be wrong with the philosophy behind President Bush's proposed income tax cut - to give most of the tax breaks to the wealthy, the ones that paid the most in income taxes? The proposed income tax cut does not provide tax relief for relatively unearned forms of wealth such as inheritances and capital gains. Rather, an income tax cut is ostensibly a reward for hard work, imagination, and innovation. This being the case, supporters of the Bush plan argue that there is little justification for imposing the punishment of higher income taxes on (or conversely, fail to provide a decent tax break for) those that work hard at a time when the government's coffers are overflowing. Even less conceivable to Bush boosters is the proposal to use the tax code as a means to redistribute wealth to those who don't work hard or pay income taxes to begin with.

Low income wage earners and their advocates are quick to point out that the poor do not pay much in the way of income taxes because, well, they don't have much in the way of income. This is an obvious and indisputable fact, regardless of one's political orientation. The debate gets interesting when opposing theories are put forth to account for the existence of poverty in America.

Explanations from the Right tend to revolve around social Darwinism: the poor have less of a work ethic, they are intellectually inferior, or maybe they are relatively content with poverty. The gist of this perspective is that everyone in America has the same opportunity, not everyone is inherently equal, and consequently the best and the brightest will rise to the top. In the final analysis, an individual is responsible for his station in life. This is natural, inevitable, and proper.

Those from the Left take issue with the notion that an individual is solely responsible for his/her economic status. It is not the case that poor people do not, or are not willing to work hard. There is nothing in the genetic code that renders certain people lazy, but rather there are a number of outside pressures acting negatively on certain people that effectively slant the playing field. Education is not the same for all, hard work is not always rewarded equally, and poor people who have been historically oppressed have no faith in the economic system. The government should level the playing field, and this means using the tax code to redistribute wealth and give all people the same opportunity.

There are in fact a number of people in the U.S. who are required to begin, so to speak, from a less advantageous point than others. The child of a single mother residing in a rural trailer park will not have access to the same resources and supportive environment readily available to someone like the child of George Soros.

The common conservative response is two fold. First, there are any number of people who rose from humble beginnings, who 'pulled themselves up by their bootstraps', to become great men or women. Second, and more pervasive, is the notion that, "I am not to blame for the fact that some people are poor. More than likely, they are poor because they do not wish to work. Consequently, it is not my responsibility to rectify their plight."

Only someone who is flat on his back to begin with need hoist himself up by way of bootstraps. Unless everyone begins life from a supine position, then the field is indeed slanted. As to assigning blame for the tilted terrain, impassioned theories from both the right and left camps abound. Yet the key to finding common ground and progress lies not in hunting down the guilty parties, but rather in exonerating the innocent: the children of the poor.

A runner who must begin a race far behind the rest of the pack is not being given a fair start. Without a fair start, the runner's chances of winning, or even being competitive in the rat race are slim. There are of course those who feel that life is not meant to be fair, and that people must make do with the hand they are dealt. But to abandon fairness as a guiding principle in economics has obvious and dire consequences. Suffice it to say that a runner who is cognizant of being unfairly handicapped in a race will likely abandon the rules - trip, tackle, or shoot the other racers - in an effort to win.

But what specifically is it about being a poor child in America that puts him or her at a considerable distance behind the pack? These days everyone has equal access to education, and anyone who studies hard can get accepted to college. The government makes loans available for those needing assistance with tuition, and once in college an individual can definitely be said to be responsible for their own future, right?

The extra hurdles that a poor kid must clear are numerous and well known, though sometimes discounted as tenuous and insignificant.

A poor child will live in and around other poor people. His parents, siblings, neighbors, friends and classmates will influence the child's attitudes toward the world around him. Because his community is poor, their experiences will likely have caused them to conclude that hard work doesn't pay and that the system is unjust. The child may know of respected people in his community who make a good living in black market trades. He/she may be unsupervised for much of the day because both parents work but can't afford childcare.

An impoverished child may be put upon to quit school in order to contribute to the household income. The odds that a poor kid will have adequate place, resources, and time to study are low. Schools in poor areas are inferior in almost every measurable category - facilities, classroom environment, teacher-student ratios, and extra curricular activities. Positive recreational opportunities for poor children are usually lacking. The list goes on, and the cycle of poverty continues. Without being given a fair start, a good job is probably unattainable; parents without a good job are unable to provide their children with a proper start.

If impoverished children must currently start the economic race a few legs behind the starting line, if the indigent child is at a disadvantage through no fault of his own, if this is generally recognized to be unfair, and if the United States wishes to be known as a land of equal opportunity, then something must be done to alter the current situation.

There are no incentives for private entities to solve the problem. Private enterprise is motivated by self-interest, and even though investment in a poor area could potentially benefit a private investor (better qualified future employees), the benefits could also just as easily accrue to the private investor's competitors. Tax write-offs for charitable contributions are apt to result in an abundance of charitable organizations with different agendas and philosophies working disjointedly. A concerted effort on a grand scale is needed. The only other option is for that much maligned organization known as government to take the lead.

The answer then is simple if anathema - greater taxes to fund government programs for poor children. Give poor children brand new, sleek schools with the latest technology and resources. Pay teachers in poor areas lucrative salaries and cut teacher student ratios to 1:10. Provide a new PC to every poor child and build huge new community centers that offer daycare, places for kids to study, as well as recreational facilities and programs.

What's more, poor children can not be assisted in a vacuum, their parents - the biggest influence on a child's life - must also be assisted so that the child will have a the right environment in which to develop. The child must have adequate clothing, a comfortable home, a full stomach, and quality health care. Additionally, programs to accelerate the proliferation of mixed income housing should be expanded. Children should be removed from the culture of poverty.

Aside from the knee-jerk opposition to any new taxes, to any new government programs - especially those for the poor - there will be concern that this proposal means greater expenditure in poor areas than in a taxpayer's own community for the benefit of a taxpayer's own children. It does.

The idea is to level the playing field, to build an economic system that truly affords equal opportunity for all - a meritocracy. If this is desirable, then more money must be invested where there is less. Ten feet of rope is sufficient to pull a child from a ten-foot hole, but that same length of rope is of little aid to the child in a fifty-foot hole.

The substantial sums of money that need to be invested in poor children need not, nor should they be taken from that money which is invested in children who are better off; it is not necessary to raise up poor children by lowering the investment in other children. The goal is not to spread the pain, but to give all children all of the tools and means available to realize their potential. But if the money for poor kids isn't going to come from rich kids, then where shall it come from?

The Bush income tax cut assumes close to a two trillion dollar surplus, meaning that there will be two trillion more dollars over the next ten years than is 'needed'. Clearly though, more money needs to be invested in poor children to give them a real and fair shot at economic success. And while there is much debate as to whether the wealthy deserve an income tax break, there can be no debate as to whether poor children deserve the current ramifications of being born poor in America.