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Tax Day and the Fight for $15

Yesterday I paid my taxes to Uncle Sam and the State of Illinois. And I joined thousands of fast food workers and their allies in a march in Chicago to demand living wages at McDonalds and other chains. While paying taxes is not a favorite activity, I actually feel good about both commitments yesterday. Paying taxes is one of the ways I support the public good, providing for those things that help create a healthy, robust, and vibrant nation and community. Not everything my tax dollars support are things I celebrate. But I recognize that I can’t pick and choose only those things that serve my private interests or align with my passions. The common good means just that. Common. Not just my good as I determine it. Sadly, that notion is contested these days as more and more of the common good is privatized to serve the interests of the few rather than the many. While most of us probably don’t think of it this way, tax day is an affirmation of shared responsibility and sacrifice for the good of all.

I also feel good about marching with the Fight for $15 workers. People who work hard ought to earn a living wage. They ought to be able to pay the rent and feed their families. They ought to be able to provide school supplies and clothes for their children and pay for the transportation they need to get to work or school. Medical care should be available, not just at a crowded emergency room, but in a doctor’s office with medical personnel who know them. And every so often they ought to be able to do something many of us take for granted: splurge on a small extravagance – a toy for a child, an annual trip to the amusement park, a car trip to visit grandma five hundred miles away.

What I don’t feel good about is paying taxes that enable companies to pay their employees poverty wages while their shareholders and executives live lavishly. Last year low wages in the United States cost tax payers $152.8 billion in public support for working families, according to the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. Its report found that stagnating wages and decreased benefits are a problem not only for low wage workers who increasingly cannot make ends meet, but also for the federal government as well as the 50 state governments that finance the public assistance programs many of these workers and their families turn to. Seventy-three percent of enrollees in America’s major public support programs are members of working families. The taxpayers bear a significant portion of the hidden costs of low-wage work in America.

I am glad that my taxes help provide for things like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.. This is part of the critical safety net that a nation ought to guarantee its most vulnerable citizens. It’s part of the common good. But should I be supporting these programs to supplement the poverty wages paid fast food workers at McDonalds where CEOs over the past few years took home between $10 and $20 million a year?   Bloomberg Business calculated that in 2013 a typical McDonalds’ worker would need to work a million hours in order to achieve the annual compensation given to its CEO. (That would be about 2,740 hours a day. Whoops.) Recently McDonalds announced that it would raise its minimum salary $1 above the minimum wage for employees of its company owned stores (most are franchise owned). That won’t make much of a dent in those million hours.

These two related events on April 15 – tax day and the Fight for $15 mobilization – make a strong case for dignity and fairness, both of which are in short supply these days. No family should have to endure drug testing or the cost and frustration of a $25 per ATM transaction limit in order to pay their rent or buy groceries. And people who work overtime every day caring for our elderly parents, watching our children, or feeding our fast food habit shouldn’t have to rely on Medicaid to be able to take their children to the doctor. Meanwhile, people like me shouldn’t be asked to subsidize corporate profits and exorbitant CEO salaries by filling the gaps left in the wake of their scandalously low wage scales.

Sadly, both dignity and fairness are threatened by public officials beholden to the corporate money that helped elect them. Efforts to raise the legal minimum wage are brushed aside along with initiatives to guarantee things like paid sick time. An increasingly regressive tax structure is protected to preserve the privileges of the financial elites, freezing state and federal budgets and making access to public support more and more onerous for underpaid workers and their families. What I learned this week is that paying my taxes doesn’t do much for the common good as long as a chunk of it is directed to increasingly degrading assistance programs that barely cover the unpaid bills of workers whose employers refuse to pay a living wage while they live the good life.   Dignity and fairness. Pay and protest. Unless we do both my taxes may ultimately be used to erode the common good rather than strengthen it.

John H. Thomas
April 16, 2015

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