vendredi, octobre 15, 2004

I Have $55,000 More Than I Had Yesterday

There are two kinds of people in America - those who would win $100,000 in the lottery and say "I won $100,000 but after taxes it was only $55,000" and those who would win $100,000 and say "I have $55,000 more than I had yesterday. I'm the second type." -Duf

Perhaps now is a good time to tell you I don't really have $55,000 more than I had yesterday. I've just been thinking a lot about money and taxes. It all started last week.

Last week, on my way home, I stopped at the "Ghetto Rainbow," the affectionate name a group of friends and I have for a grocery store chain's location on University Avenue in the midway section of St. Paul. The store is in the heart of the city, and attracts a number of interesting characters. I've been solicited by a prositute there (yes, I declined), and I saw a woman beat her son because he vomited on the floor in the produce section. I don't think he did it on purpose. I think he wasn't feeling well.

My wife and I have the whole granola vibe going, and we tend to be fairly laid back when it comes to groceries and the cost of groceries. We usually go here for groceries, but we also go here. It depends on what we want and how we feel. I go as often as my wife does, and we both usually go beyond the list to grab other items. Last week I went in for rice milk and bread, and came out with $70 worth of stuff including fruit, english muffins (my favorite) and the my favorite snack chip.

The man just before me at the checkout stand, paid using an electronic debit card that the State of Minnesota issues to citizens who need financial assistance. The debit card covered more than $100 worth of his groceries, and he had to come out of pocket for the remaining $20 or so.

Several things stood out to me about this scene. First, the guy, in many ways, was a lot like me. I would place him in his mid-30's. He was pleasingly portly, and he was African-American. We didn't visit, but he seemed like a nice guy. After I bagged my groceries and as I was walking to my car, I found myself wondering two things. I wondered what he bought at the grocery store (I wish I'd taken a moment to see how he spent his assistance - because I think it matters to some I do remember seeing a whole chicken), and I wondered how he was getting home. Not because I wanted to give him a ride home and interview him for my blog, but because I was curious.

Also, two images from the past came to mind. First, I remembered a time in my childhood in Wichita, Kansas, when my brother, a babysitter and I went to the Dillons on 13th and Oliver and got sandwich fixings. It was the first time I remember seeing food stamps, and I recall our babysitter telling us about them. I think I was about 12.

The second image was of Ronald Reagan's notorious welfare queen - you know, the one with the Cadillac and the swimming pool. I think that's why I wanted to see how the guy was getting to the grocery store. Did he take the bus, or did he roll up in a '05 Escalade with 20" dubz?

My enduring thought was this. I am truly blessed. I am blessed in many ways. Scenes like this one can call to mind how fortunate we are. Those of us who do not require assistance from the government are fortunate. We are fortunate because we are self-sufficient, and we are fortunate because if we ever do require such assistance, it will be there for us. I am blessed, and so is the man who used the debit card that night.

Of course, he has the card because the government gave it to him. He met the qualifications, and he received it. Good for him. The card is paid for using money from tax payers like myself. How fortunate we are to benefit others through our work and through our system of government. There are some who see this differently than I do. They see the money that the government takes away (the money they don't have), and they wonder why a seemingly healthy man is not paying his own way. They want lower taxes, and they want him to get a job.

As for me, I can tell you that, in the heart of my heart and with every fiber of my being, I don't care. I don't care what kind of car he drives, I don't care what he spent the money on. I don't care. I can't really know anything about him except that he used a government issued debit card to buy his groceries. I don't know why, and I don't care. For all I know he was a welfare cheat. For all I know he was a government employee testing the cards and the store. He might have been getting groceries for his elderly mother. He might be a highly specialized worker in a depressed industry. He might be a drug dealer who took the card from a junkie in exchange for crack cocaine. He might be using it for the last time because he got a job, and he starts in two weeks. I can't know. I don't know, and (one more time) I don't care, except in this way:

I want everyone who wants to work and who is able to work to be able to work. I want work to make sense for them. I want it to be rewarding (I believe all work has value), and I want them to be able to meet their basic needs (plus a little bit extra) using income drawn from work. As books like Barbara Ehrenreich's remarkable "Nickel and Dimed" point out, there are too many jobs that do not provide a living wage, and until all jobs do (and even after), I will be thankful for programs that allow the underprivileged to buy food. When jobs pay a living wage and all who want jobs can have them, I will still argue for a publicly funded safety net to support folks during emergencies.

Two closing thoughts to make a long blog even longer. Some argue that private charity is a better approach to helping the poor than government assistance. I disagree for two reasons. First, charity is, and always will be voluntary. As anyone who has ever worked with a non-profit can tell you, when times are hard, charities suffer - right when more folks need assistance. Second, to receive charity, you must go to a designated place. You must go to a shelter or to a soup kitchen, and requiring people to queue up for their basic needs undermines their dignity. It is better to allow them to shop in grocery stores and to control their destiny by making choices for what they will eat and how they will spend their money. It is more dignified and less segregated.

Second (last thought in an effort to tie it all back): those who want smaller taxes are missing an essential point. If you make $100,000 per year, and your take home pay is $55,000, then you're still doing quite all right. You're still pulling in about $4,500 per month, and that's not too shabby. You are self-sufficient. You are making a contribution to your community and to the world. You are blessed, and you several thousand dollars better off than a lot of folks are. The same argument applies for folks making $50,000 and $20,000. It's all fiction. You don't negotiate for the salary, you negotiate for what you will take home. In a world with no taxes, folks making $100,000 today would make $55,000. Taxes and other stuff is already factored in, and it's silly to pretend otherwise.

I guess what I'm saying is we'd all be a lot better off if we focused on what we have, not on what we don't have but think we should.