October 3, 2011

Books: Taxes exact highest toll from poorest Americans

Poor Americans are shouldering an unfair tax burden, a toll that is exacerbating poverty-related problems, such as obesity, early mortality, low-graduation rates, teen pregnancy and crime, according to the authors of the book Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged (University of California Press, 2011).

Through Taxing the Poor, co-authors Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist and the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins, and Rourke L. O’Brien, a graduate student in sociology and social policy at Princeton University, seek to promote greater understanding of the relationship between taxes and poverty-related outcomes. While many scholars have studied the connections between poverty and social problems, Newman and O’Brien are the first to look at how sales taxes contribute to these outcomes.

Sales taxes are a prime example of how taxes punish the poor, according to Newman and O’Brien. Though they are often thought of as one of the most equitable ways for a government to raise money, sales taxes, they say, are far from fair in the rural South—and increasingly in the West—where the rates are higher than in other parts of the country and, in many cases, apply to food for home consumption.

Personal stories from the families interviewed for Taxing the Poor draw in readers while illustrating key points in the book, such as how high taxes on groceries keep more-expensive food staples, such as fruits and vegetables, from making it into the shopping cart. People living at or below the poverty line are more likely to choose the cheaper junk food alternatives in order to put meals on the table and, in doing so, are burdened by obesity and its consequences, Newman and O’Brien write.

“The deeper the Southern states (and increasingly those in the West) dig into the pocketbooks of low-income families, the more they exacerbate the very problems we associate with poverty in the first place: low levels of educational attainment, single-parent households, crime and the like,” the authors write. “An endless vortex of taxation, social problems, poverty and more taxation seems to follow. Our purpose is to direct attention to regional variation in poverty patterns and to argue that a powerful source of divergence between the Southern states and much of the rest of the United States is to be found in the ways in which they tax the poor.”

Newman and O’Brien suggest that the best chance for breaking the cycle of overtaxing the poor is to move social safety nets from state to federal control by promoting nationwide initiatives that would eliminate sales taxes on basic foodstuffs, medicine and clothing; promote the use of earned-income tax credits as a way to put money in the hands of the working poor; federally regulate and finance major safety net programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid and like programs, such as food stamps and Social Security; and change the way the national poverty line is calculated, accounting for regional variations in cost of living