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Tax Cuts Are Short-Term Fix for Long-Term Problem

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, January 22, 2009

The day before Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president, I was on a panel in which other participants spoke of Obama as if he were a superhero.

Spike Lee, the movie director, put together a "Refresh the World" Symposium at Howard University that included a panel on the economy. At times, we hotly debated Obama's economic stimulus plan.

Like many Americans, I celebrated the election of Obama, who for the first time in a long time truly makes people feel like a change is gonna come. Obama personifies hope. And right now, we all need hope that we'll survive the economic tornado whirling through the nation.

But Obama is just one man. He's the president, but he isn't a superhero. If he's not careful and not well-advised, he'll push Congress to do exactly what previous presidents have done in an effort to jump-start an ailing economy. If we are truly to change the things that led to this recession, we need to take the time to do things right. We need to do things differently. We need a long-term rescue plan.

"Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age," Obama said during his inaugural address.

But Obama, the man, the president, knows well that Americans are an impatient people. We want things fast. It's why so many people are in credit card debt. They can't wait to save up for what they want.

Obama is already making a mistake by again proposing to spend billions of dollars that the Treasury doesn't have to give a pitiful tax cut to people who need far more than that to get by.

During the campaign, Obama released his plan to revitalize the economy in the short term. It included a stimulus package that he said would immediately inject billions into the economy in the form of tax cuts and direct spending. I noticed the repeated use of such phases as "short-term," "immediately," quickly," i.e., the same old, same old. His tax cuts do not give me hope.

The tax cut that Obama proposes would give $500 a year for individuals and $1,000 for couples. This would be in the form of a credit. Practically, it's a payroll tax credit meaning that employers could reduce the amount of tax that would be withheld from employees' paychecks. The estimated cost of this cut/credit is $150 billion.

I'm a lifelong penny pincher, and I'm not above stooping down to pick up a penny, but putting our country into more debt to give people $500 is akin to handing the badly wounded a Band-Aid.

"To get people spending again, 95 percent of working families will receive a $1,000 tax cut," Obama has said.

I work regularly one-on-one with people in debt or in cash-strapped circumstances, and I have never advised them to spend more when they are already living beyond their means -- as this country is. And yet that's what Obama is proposing, at least with the tax cut for individuals.

Instead, I would be more hopeful if Obama put forth a long-term plan that helps people help themselves.

"The American Dream is slipping out of reach for many families whose paychecks aren't meeting the increased costs of their medical bills and tuition payments," Obama said in releasing details of his stimulus plan during the campaign.

So how exactly is $500 going to help keep people from living paycheck to paycheck or pay for college, or cover the escalating costs of health care?

"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many," Obama said after taking the oath of office. "They will not be met easily or in a short span of time."

And yet, isn't his proposed tax cut a short-term solution? It's a way to avoid pain. But pain is what causes people to change long-term. Pain is what caused people to do things differently after the Great Depression. And people, like my grandmother, Big Mama, took those changes to their graves.

"The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift," Obama said.

If we want to deploy billions of dollars for true change, why not do something truly bold and swift: provide a free college education to Americans so they can prepare to work in jobs that pay enough to live comfortably. We're getting close to the point where a college education is only affordable for the wealthiest among us.

If we're going to spend money we don't have, let's figure out a way, right now, to provide health care to people without the coverage being tied to their jobs.

The individual tax cut that Obama is likely to put forth to get people to spend more is more of the same. And that's not change.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and at http://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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