Suppose it turned out that the poverty "income" line for a family of four should be set at $100,000 per annum, rather than the $22,000 shown by government reports. Would that surprise you? The figures are painfully straightforward to back up this assertion. For 2013, $6.3 trillion in total expenditures - federal, state and local, against a population of approximately 316 million. Do the division - it comes out to just under $20,000 for every man, woman and child. So, add about $80,000 in benefits for that family of four to the $22,000 cash income figure, round down, and, voila! - $100,000!
Why do we pay taxes anyway? Isn't it to provide funds to pay for the goods and services deemed necessary and appropriate to promote our general welfare: education, national defense, police and fire protection, the court systems, health care and health research, pensions, roads and highways, tunnels and bridges, safe water supply, sewage collection and treatment, job training, environmental protection, food and housing for the poor, help for the disabled, looking after the needs of our veterans, parks and recreation. But if that is why we pay taxes, to support this structure of government-provided goods and services, why is there no public accounting for the benefits that accrue to all of us - rich, poor, and the vast majority in the middle - either as specific benefits to ourselves and our families or benefits to the general welfare? I have never seen such an accounting presented. Have you?
We hear constantly that there is a vast inequality in the distribution of wealth and income in the United States, a disparity supposedly greater now than at any time in the last 90 years. And, of course, coupled with that announcement, a demand that the disparity be lessened somehow, but in general with higher taxes on those deemed wealthy and greater benefits provided for those who have less. But how can we sensibly discuss questions of redistribution of private wealth and income without taking into account the redistribution already provided by governmental expenditures, through taxation, and now, increasingly, by government borrowing?
That is, who gets the benefit of free universal public education, a vast expenditure from any point of view; the benefit of our national defense posture; the benefit of our retirement programs and police and fire protection and all the other government undertakings mentioned above?
Salaries and benefits and pensions are paid to the government employees who actually provide these services or who oversee private contractors who are paid to provide us with these services.
Are we getting our money's worth? Obviously they need to be compensated at some level sufficient to employ and retain competent people to do the required work in a competitive job market. But is it mere coincidence, then, that ten of the 25 highest median family income counties in the U.S. are the ones immediately surrounding the nation's capital?
If those with less-tangible wealth and income do not regard all of these governmental undertakings as "income" or "benefits" now, is there any reason to think that even more programs and expenditures made on their behalf will somehow alleviate this sense of grievance, of getting the short end of the stick?
Is it not clear that the only means of successfully redressing the disparity in income and wealth is through the economic empowerment of career training based on a solid educational foundation?
How could it possibly be otherwise, unless the real subtext operative here in redistributionist advocacy is more ideological: to cut the fat cats down to size, as it were, work them over a little, make them feel guilty about their relative success in the economic field? These are nasty thoughts, but if my analysis of the utter unreality of the current income- and wealth-redistribution proposals is in the ball park, this nastiness forces itself to the fore. Only a decent, increasingly knowledge-based, job can lift people out of poverty or off the cliff edge of just barely hanging on.
This is one of an occasional column by Mark B. Packer, a Bellingham attorney and former planning commissioner who has led a book discussion group called "Heavy Culture in Bellingham" for the past 23 years.