Republican Policies Would 'Soak the Poor'

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the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Republican Policies Would 'Soak the Poor'

Republicans proudly champion freedom. Freedom from health care. Freedom from clean air and water. Freedom from immigrant potato pickers.

The holiest of holies for Republican true believers, however, is freedom from taxation. Taxes must go down and never, ever go up.

In 2011, however, Republicans have undergone something of a conversion. They are content to see taxes rise.

Indeed, they are pushing for tax increases. Of course, not higher tax bills for multinational corporations or Americans with seven- or eight-figure annual incomes.

Republicans are targeting the sick and unemployed, the indigent and elderly, as well as working-class families struggling to raise children.

These are what Wall Street Journal editorial writers and Fox News talking heads call the "lucky duckies."

The "lucky duckies" may ride the bus, strain to pay the rent and choose between eating and paying the heat bill. Yet one aspect of their lives is ever so enviable: They do not pay federal income taxes.

Nearly half of Americans pay no federal income tax. Let us pause for a moment to let the reader's jealousy seethe.

Yet who would want to change places with this "other half"?

Financially stressed families pay plenty of taxes -- from payroll taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare to sales taxes and property taxes.

Those taxes represent a far larger share of their income than they do for the more prosperous. In other words, most taxes impose a greater burden on the bottom than on the top of the income ladder.

Never mind. Republicans, in the name of closing loopholes and adopting "flatter, fairer taxes," promote alternatives that will reduce federal income taxes on the most prosperous and raise taxes on low-income families.

That would make taxes flatter but far less fair.

What kind of soft-hearted/soft-headed left-wingers could have supported tax loopholes that shield millions of Americans from federal income taxes? Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush signed these tax provisions into law. They were not exactly Marx, Engels and Lenin.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, passed on Ford's watch, aims to promote what once was a Republican ideal -- rewarding work. The idea is to encourage people to leave welfare for jobs. If the work pays too little to support a family, the credit aims to help fill the hole in the household budget.

Reagan trumpeted how millions of additional working poor left the tax rolls with the reforms he pushed through Congress in 1986. For once in his life, Reagan was right.

Another tax law that shields low-income working families from the IRS is the Child Care Credit. The credit, introduced in 1997 under Bill Clinton, doubled under Bush -- to $1,000 per child, up from $500.

Since the federal income tax became law almost a century ago, progressive taxation -- taxing people according to their ability to pay -- has been a bedrock principle of how Americans paid for their government.

It makes sense.

After all, the most prosperous obtain more than most people from a federal government that enforces copyrights and patents, maintains courts that officiate over property-rights disputes and (when the government does its job right) regulates markets to ensure their fairness.

One reason Bill Gates became a billionaire was that the FBI dragged off Windows bootleggers in chains. Great fortunes grow with government cooperation.

In recent years, Republican leaders have been chipping away at the principle of progressive taxation. Lately, they have adopted a tax policy that some call "soak the poor."

The very politicians who invoke fears of class warfare at the mere suggestion of higher taxes on people with winter homes in Aspen and summer homes in Montana are taking aim at people moving mountains to keep one roof over their heads.

A single mother, struggling to raise a child on an income of $20,000, pays no federal income tax. Who does she think she is, General Electric?

Parents with two kids, living on $50,000 a year, face a federal income tax bill of zero. Who decided that feeding children takes precedence over nourishing the U.S. Treasury?

A college student, making $25,000, dances off without paying a dollar in income tax. Getting an education is fine, but here is a tax break that fosters "class" resentment. Or so say leading Republicans.

At the request of the Star Tribune, the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche worked up some examples of the sorts of people who are free from federal income taxes for 2011. The examples offer insight into the sort of people who Republican leaders have become so eager to tax:

• Consider a single parent trying to raise a child on an annual income of $20,000. Taking a standard deduction, without federal tax credits, the worker would face a tax of $410. However, a child credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit would wipe out the liability and result in a refundable credit f $3,151.

• A family with an income of $50,000 may not be poor, but that income does not go far when raising two children. What would have been a $2,690 federal tax bill for the family would be erased by tax credits for children and dependent care expenses -- leaving the household with a $310 payment from the U.S. Treasury.

• As for the student with $25,000 income, $1,500 in current and lifetime education credits would leave the Treasury owing him $600.

Republicans leaders want a winner-take-all economy where the less fortunate perversely are cast as the most fortunate -- and are told to pay up, whether or not they can afford it.

Cutting the shoestring budgets of millions of Americans would be unforgivable -- especially for a party that celebrates people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Mike Meyers

Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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