A day to celebrate, lament, and (most of all) make a commitment to tax justice
Tax Day, April 15, often brings conflicted feelings about paying our taxes. On the one hand, it is a time to celebrate our democracy. We elect representatives who pass laws, including ones that tax us, and we calmly and honestly pay our taxes. We have a commitment to our neighbors and the common good. Programs funded by our taxes house the homeless (the Section 8 housing program and others), provide health care for those without insurance (Medicaid, "Obamacare"), and feed the hungry (Food Stamps, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and WIC for pregnant women and infants). The faith community maintains many feeding programs also. But David Beckman, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, reminds us that all the food provided through faith-based feeding programs is just a small fraction (6%) of the food provided by the federal government. Public programs are essential. Our taxes also pay for all the other things that contribute to our common good: environmental protection, education and training, public health, roads and bridges, food and consumer safety, public parks, the court system, public safety, and many more. We could (and probably often do) note the defects and inadequacies in many of these programs and services. But without our taxes, they would not exist at all. We show our love for our sisters and brothers in the U.S. and around the globe by paying our taxes and funding the programs and services that make our world a better place.
But we also know there are problems with our tax system and the federal budget. We often dislike how our tax money is spent: too much for the military, too little to lift people out of poverty, provide opportunities for all, and create thriving communities. Another concern is that some people and corporations pay less than their fair share.
Fifty years ago, corporations as a group paid more than 20% of all the taxes collected by the federal government. That share has steadily fallen and in 2013, corporations paid just 10% of federal taxes – at a time when profits were at record highs. Many, very profitable corporations pay no taxes. Legal loopholes allow firms like Verizon, GE, and Boeing to go years without paying a dime. A 2013 General Synod resolution called for reform of the corporate tax system including an end to loopholes and tax havens, and an increase in the amount of taxes paid by corporations.
The most wealthy households, the top 1/100th of 1% (some 16,000 households with incomes over $10 million), have also seen dramatic declines in their taxes over the past 40 years – just at the time when their income and wealth were skyrocketing. Prior to 1970s, these households paid over 70% of their income in tax (this is the actual amount paid, not their marginal tax rate). Since then, their taxes have repeatedly been cut and today they pay less than 40% of their income in tax. The Synod resolution also spoke to this concern. If corporations and the wealthy paid higher taxes, the federal government would be better able to provide needed programs and services, and the federal debt would be smaller.
So Tax Day gives us reasons to celebrate and to lament. May it also be a day when we make a commitment to work for tax fairness: everyone paying their fair share for programs and services that serve the common good and create a world where all God’s people and creation live in the fullness of life.