Imagine living on $5 a week.
I know kids who can't do it. But I also know a 50-year-old man who lives in Adams-Morgan who is doing just that.
Imagine opening up your weekly paycheck one day and discovering that the Internal Revenue Service is taking $74 off the top every two weeks. If you earn only $6,000 a year, like the man I know, this kind of pay cut can be the unkindest cut of all.
I won't mention the man's name, 285got him. Besides, he doesn't want his daughter to know what a mess he's in.
But here he is, an immigrant to Washington from the Caribbean who has worked a string of odd jobs to make ends meet, and just when it looks like he's about to get his head above water . . . zap!
He says he forgot to include one of his jobs on his income tax return, and the IRS found out.
Here is an agency that admits that it loses $100 billion annually in uncollected taxes from the underground economy, illegal activities and tax evasion, which launches a crackdown and comes up with a guy who owes $500.
Although the new IRS computer was losing track of tax returns and creating record backlogs of returns and correspondence, once it got its teeth into that $500 it clung relentlessly.
Now, the man admits that he erred in filling out his tax returns, and says he panicked when he received a notice from the IRS that he owed $500. Like some people, he simply wished that the problem would go away. He just didn't have $500 to give. And the next thing he knew, the IRS had sent him another notice saying that he now owed $1,000, which included delinquency fines.
The IRS then contacted his employer, a local security-guard firm, and demanded witholdings from his paycheck. The agency also let the man know that the $1,000 was now $2,000.
"I didn't expect anything like this," the man said woefully. "This is the worst experience of my life. After I pay the rent and the light bill, I only have enough left over for fruit and maybe some chicken parts."
He thought about going on welfare, but scratched that idea. Not his style, he says. It would make more sense, he thought, to flee the country. But what would happen to his daughter?
"I guess I'm stuck," he said sadly.
Because of all the work he has done for people who live in the neighborhood, folks who know about his problem are often eager to help. Some lend him money, others bring food. In the end, he says he feels as if he's on just another kind of welfare.
"The thing about it is I want to work, love to work, but it never occurred to me that the more I worked, the more I would be penalized," he said. "The worst part about the whole thing is that you never know how long this will go on. There is no end in sight."
Don't get him wrong. The man loves America. He had worked hard in his homeland to save up enough money to get over here, filled out all the proper paperwork (he's not an illegal alien), and pounded the pavement every day to get jobs.
His daughter is in a good school and is doing fine. He was living and working in a neighborhood that offered the best of this city and his home country as well.
"I had saved up $200," he said. "The IRS took that immediately. It's like I'm starting all over from scratch. My wife and I have separated and I'm just trying to do as much as I can for my daughter."
But there will be no more Sunday trips to McDonald's, at least not for a year or so. If he can last that long.
"The pressures increase and I think more and more about leaving, just going back home," he said.
So there you have it. Given all of the tax shelters that exist for rich people to beat the system, all of the foul-ups at the IRS lately, who gets crushed? The little guy . . . as usual.