The Children's Defense Fund, an organization that lobbies for poor, minority and handicapped children, has issued a report that demonstrates yet another way in which the poor or near poor are being badly hurt by current federal policies.
It is a report that deserves the attention of everyone moved by the goals and sense of compassion that marked the Great Society. It is a document that deserves attention, not only because it talks about the kind of tax policies we have developed as a nation but because it talks about what kind of people we have become -- or are becoming. It portrays in graphic statistical detail the human economic deprivation that it would be most comfortable to forget -- just as we forgot or ignored the kind of human economic deprivation and suffering that preceded the Great Society.
The paper, written by Mary Bourdette and Jim Weill, opens with a description of Jane Doe, a single mother of three children. "In 1979 her income from her job was $8,000, a little above the federal poverty line. Jane, like most other low-income workers, had no unusual tax deductions or tax 'breaks,' so her federal income and Social Security taxes were $481, leaving her family with $7,519 to live on after federal taxes, still a tiny bit above the official poverty line in 1979 ($7,412 for a single family of four.)
"From 1979 to 1984 inflation increased the cost of living by 43.2 percent. The poverty line also, of course, rose at that rate, from $7,412 in 1979 to $10,613 in 1984 for a family of four. Despite the recession, Jane kept her job and received salary increases equal to the cost-of-living change. Her 1984 salary was $11,456.
"Jane would be in the same financial situation as she was in during 1979, except for two things. First, many of the small governmental benefits that used to go to some working poor parents and their children have been reduced or eliminated since then. Second, her taxes have skyrocketed. In 1984, her federal taxes were $1,384 on her $11,456 income. While Jane's salary went up 43.2 percent, her taxes nearly tripled from 1979 levels. Instead of being slightly above the poverty line, her 1984 after federal tax spendable income was cut by taxes to only 95 percent of the poverty level. Increases in her federal taxes have literally impoverished her and her children." After taxes, her spendable income had dropped to $10,072 -- or $541 below the official poverty line."
In contrast, the CDF report notes, "Jane Doe paid more federal taxes than Boeing, General Electric, Dupont, Texaco, Mobil and AT&T altogether paid in federal taxes in 1983, although these huge corporations earned $13.7 billion in profits."
There are an estimated 35 million people living in poverty now, 6 million more than in 1980, and nearly half of the families headed by women were poor in 1982. The number of poor people paying taxes more than doubled between 1980 and 1982, at the same time that budget cuts reduced programs designed to help them.
Also hard hit were the two income-earning adults and two children with a poverty line income of $10,613. "This family's combined federal tax burden as a percentage of income more than quintupled during this period. Needless to say, no income group other than the poor has suffered such an increasing tax burden during this period of time."
"Needless to say" is absolutely correct. Had the middle class, the wealthy and the corporations found their income tax quintupling or even tripling in a five-year period, the howls of protest would have been enough to empty the halls of Congress, literally, and the members know it. For proof of that, one needs only to look at the swift remedial action Congress took after taxpayers (read voters) deluged it with protests over tightened Internal Revenue Service rules on business use of cars -- rules that required onerous record keeping, but which did not involve huge tax increases.
But the poor are quite another matter. They don't have fancy law firms to analyze the impact of proposed legislation for them or to lobby their cause on the Hill. A single mother of three trying to raise her children on $10,000 a year is facing a task of such crushing proportions that she probably has no idea what's hit her -- just that she's got less money to feed, clothe and shelter her children. How these mothers manage is a testament to their fortitude; that they have to is testament to a system that has gone awry. And it is testament to the fact that the Great Society isn't even trying to be good, anymore.
And we are all the poorer for that.