Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Don’t tax you, don’t tax me …*
“I am outraged. I have to pay over $800 in school taxes. I am on Social Security. What’s wrong with this picture? P.S. I have no children in school. Wake up, government.”
This item appeared in Sound Off today. Something like it crops up several times a year in Sound Off: “I’m a senior citizen. I have no children in school. Why do I have to pay school taxes?”
My first thought was, wow, which school district does this person live in? That’s a pretty low school tax bill. I pay more than three times that.
But then I realized, Outraged must already be getting a pretty good low-income tax exemption. He’s already getting a break most of us do not get, but he wants more. He does not want to have to pay for any public service that he himself does not get.
Take comfort, Outraged, that there are tens of thousands in this county who would all but kill for that school tax bill.
Still, it’s a common complaint. I hear it a lot in the 55-plus community where I live.
I will never ask that question though because I already know the answer: When I was in school for 13 years and when my son was in school for his 13 years, senior citizens were sharing the school tax burden along with me and my parents, and they had no children in school either. And when their children were in school, other senior citizens were also paying school taxes (and grousing about it) back into the dawn of time.
If those seniors had not, and if Outraged and I did not now, the cost of public school to working parents would be prohibitive. This is called “shared sacrifice.” It is also called "having a stake in society." We all have a stake in making sure that our children and their children are well-educated so that our nation can continue to be great and our children can prosper, whether or not we personally gain from it.
Shared sacrifice is why the people of Wyoming and North Dakota enjoy beautiful interstate highways even though they could not afford to pay for them and their small populations get very little use out of them in comparison to the highways of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But what the heck, we don't have much of a stake in North Dakota. Want to tear up an interstate anyone?
Property taxation has long been a somewhat inequitable form of taxation. The size of the mini-mansion that one lone, widowed senior citizen is rattling around in, say in Swarthmore, or a rowhouse that a young family with five kids is occupying in Glenolden, may not be the most accurate indicator of that person or family’s wealth and thus ability to pay. Their actual income would be.
Unfortunately, property taxation is what we use to pay for local services. And along with property taxes comes one thing that I’d bet Outraged would never give up: local autonomy. The people of Middletown want Middletown fire trucks and ambulances to come to their aid, they want their children to go to school in, or at least near, Middletown.
They want Middletown police to … oops, my bad there. They want all of the municipalities of the state of Pennsylvania to pay for their police services through the State Police. Never mind that those other municipalities are also paying for their own police services. This local autonomy thing can get a little tricky.
I think that what Outraged would like most is to not have to pay school taxes at all. For that to happen, under our current system, younger, struggling families would have to pay a whole lot more to make up the difference.
Or maybe, since Outraged’s family is grown and has no need of public schools (or perhaps his kids went to parochial schools), he wants to eliminate public schools altogether. Maybe he has bought into the rightwing idea that public schools are merely little Socialist indoctrination factories. Maybe he thinks everyone should be home-schooled.
Public schools are not Socialist indoctrination factories, they are socialization factories. Same root, different meaning. If you don't know the difference, you were not well-educated.
Schools are where we send our children to learn the common elements that hold us together: English, history, civics, math. They are where we learn that democracy is good and fascism is bad, that we all have the right to speak freely, and that our founding fathers were noble revolutionaries who brought us freedom and not selfish colonists who didn’t want to pay their fair share of taxes.
But eliminating public schools could be a way to go. Only those children whose parents can afford it would be educated in private schools. Of course, we would soon have the economy and social structure of Haiti or Bangladesh, but hey, we seniors will be dead by then so why worry about it.
If Outraged wants to get out of paying school taxes, he has to have a plan to replace them or do without them. Let’s hear it.
*“Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.” The late U.S. Sen. Russell Long, describing the public attitude toward taxation, circa 1975.
Long was a great proponent of tax breaks for business and was also the architect of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is the reason so few poor people have to pay taxes and the rest of us actually pay them. Another one of those shared sacrifices, stake in society things. Go figure.