People and the tax code

I think my birth, at the end of 1936, qualifies me as in the age group of a typical Tea Party person. However, it shames to me to think that so many of my age peers, and those somewhat younger, forget the privileged taxation policies under which they grew up and flourished and show themselves so eager to make sure that no future generation will share that privilege.
The table below (in italics) shows just how many of my growing-up years were spent when “sharing the wealth” was accepted public policy and not the occasion for screams of “socialism”, when my Town of East Providence could support four libraries; when graduating from East Providence High School was not déclassé and was compatible with winning a full four-year scholarship to college and when the English department there was so strong that my sister was placed a year ahead in English at Rhode island College because of her high grades with Miss Smith; when we didn’t have to buy pencils, pens, paper, crayons, and other school supplies (all of these being, well, supplied) and no one thought of charging fees for participation in school sports; when, if I hadn’t won the scholarship to a university in Boston, I could have had my higher education at Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island for next-to-nothing, as did my oldest sister, when I never thought of having nightmares about a load of tuition debt at graduation.
Years; No. of years; Top marginal; tax rate; My age; My life experience
1937-39; 3; 79%; 0-2; Early childhood at home; 1940-41; 2; 81%; 3-4; Childhood at home
1942-43; 2; 88%; 5-6; Childhood at home and public elementary school
1944-45; 2; 94%; 8-9; Public elementary school
1946-52; 7; 91%; 10-16; Public elementary, junior, and senior high school
1953-54; 2; 92%; 17-18; University
1955-639; 91%; 19-27; University, first years of professional life
1964; 1; 77%; 28; Graduate school
1965-81; 17; 70%; 29-45; Graduate school, university teaching and research
1982-86; 5; 60%; 46-50; University teaching and research
1987-2011; 21; <40%; 51-75; University teaching and research; retirement
*In 1940-41 the top marginal rate was applied to the amount of taxable income, after the ordinary deductions, above $500,000; between 1942 and 1954 and between 1965 and 1978, above $200,000; from 1955-1964, above $400,000; and between 1979 and 1981, above $215,400. As an example, for comparison’s sake, $200,000 in 1978 is equal to about $689,000 in today’s dollars.
So there you have it: a childhood, an educational career, all in a society that, seemingly uncomplainingly, provided a child of immigrant parents with security and opportunity, made, as far as I could see or sense, no distinction between my parents and those of my Anglo-Saxon classmates or colleagues. A society in which the Federal government, instead of passing unfunded mandates down to the states (and the states down to the local municipalities) actually instituted revenue-sharing (1972-86) and passed on tax revenues even In a period of diminishing top marginal tax rates.
The reader can use the table to figure out just how much of his or her childhood and youth was spent in the halcyon years of high top marginal tax rates. If you turned 20 or 22 before 1964, you like me lived your formative years in a privileged time. Even if you turned 20 or 22 between 1964 and 1986, you didn’t do very badly. A society held a ladder firm for us, if we were white, to climb if we could. And now so many of us have supported and are supporting kicking that ladder out from under the younger generations. The young people under 40, those who have grown up in a post-Reagan world, are the ones for whom I feel compassion.
The wealthy who paid taxes at those high rates during my childhood and youth did pay them and did keep on doing whatever it was they did to earn the incomes in those high brackets. They didn’t stop working and earning because the part of their income greater than $400,000 (after all the usual deductions and the lower tax rate brackets) was taxed at 90%. Or, if they did, as I think back now, so much the better. That left economic space for others to work and to invest. All of those highest tax rate payers from 1942 through 1963 have probably died by now. Were they some kind of genetic mutants? If greed is human nature and virtuous, as the free market proponents would have us believe, was that group inhuman? No. The socio-cultural and the political milieu supported their tax-paying as desirable and virtuous, and so they paid, more or less willingly.
Why would such a large number of the working class people who grew up and enjoyed life under the tax policies of 1936-1982 become those who rail against such policies for their grandchildren and children now? Why do they want to continue to allow the very wealthy to impose more and more of the costs of a decent society upon those who earn less/least as they have been doing since 1982? These working class people, many now retired, complain about high taxes, especially property taxes, without seeming to reflect that these local and state taxes have been driven higher and higher by the refusal of the wealthy to pay higher marginal income taxes, the most progressive taxes, that once made possible the revenue-sharing that supported local and state services.
But, then, perhaps reflecting has gone out of style. I don’t think so. It’s more likely that the increasing complexity of contemporary life, along with longer working hours and lower pay, have reduced the time that people have to read, to reflect, to discuss and to take action in their own defense. The takeover of East Providence’s autonomy by a state-appointed Revenue Commission is part of a deliberate policy of reducing aid to towns, imposing mandates, and making local property taxes so high that services to which the people are long accustomed can no longer be paid for without higher property taxation.
The solution is NOT to fight property tax rises but to go to the kernel of the matter and demand the restoration of highly progressive income taxation, at both state and Federal levels, along with revenue sharing to cover all imposed mandates. The Federal and State governments have to assume responsibility for paying for what they are constitutionally required to do, in the case of Rhode Island, to support public education.
Patricia J. Fontes
Patricia J. Fontes was born and raised in East Providence and presently residing in Hopkinton. As she wrote, “Once a Townie, always a Townie!”
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