Dear Mr. Romney,
I was shocked by your comments about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax. I happen to be one of them, but my first reaction was not self-defense. Rather, I was horrified that a man who some consider fit to lead this country would speak so derisively of nearly half its citizens. If I, as a college teacher, were to announce that I felt about half my students were too lazy and stupid to succeed and therefore unworthy of my concern, I would be swiftly fired. I’d deserve it, because a public servant who can’t see any worth in the people he is charged to lead and serve is unworthy of the honor.
By now, anyone who cares to read has heard plenty explanations of why this 47% number is bunk: it’s inflated by the recession and high unemployment; most of those people pay plenty of other taxes; most have paid quite a bit of income tax at other times in their lives. A lot of them, because payroll taxes come out of their checks, likely don’t even understand you meant them.
I’m probably the kind of person you really had in mind when you wrote off the 47%. I’m in my mid-thirties, and I’ve lived on government support for much of my life. As a child of dirt-poor parents in rural northern Indiana there were many years when, if not for free lunches at school and the food stamp program, I would have had very little to eat. We kept a thriving garden, but my father tells me there were years when our income (for a family of four) was effectively zero. The economy was bad in Fulton County, but we were attached to the land and too poor to move. You’ve probably never considered that someone could be too poor to move, but it isn’t free. Moving back to my hometown after graduate school almost broke my family.
My entire education is thanks to public schooling, and without government subsidized student loans I could never have attended college, let alone graduate school. Thanks to the social hurdles that (for me) came along with being poor, it took me ten years longer to complete university than it does most people. Between attempts, single and working full time as a loan clerk at a local bank, I did pay a little income tax. I’m not going to pretend I’ve paid my fair share. I am aware that I owe a debt to my society that I can only aspire to repay.
In fact, my debt to society continues to accumulate: both my sons are Medicare babies, and they have eaten thanks to the SNAP program for their entire lives. My oldest, now in kindergarten, is getting free lunches at school. As a working-poor household, we enjoy refundable tax credits that amount to thousands a year. And since we don’t buy alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, or gasoline, we pay a lot less in taxes than many other working poor people. We don’t pay excise taxes because we don’t own a car; we use subsidized public transit. Pretty much all the government gets out of us, in cash, is the 7% sales tax we pay as Indiana citizens.
Do I feel entitled to all this, like you said? Yes, I suppose I do. I work really hard; generally at two or three part- and full-time jobs. My wife and I take excellent care of our children, who will grow up to be great assets to society if it lets them. And I put my education to work for the state: teaching a three-course load of writing classes at the local community college. The pay there is absolutely abysmal, and there are no benefits. So I see the aid my family gets from the state, in part, as compensation for that labor. Because the state does not fund higher education adequately, many college teachers do not earn a fair (or even livable) wage. Instead of paying me fairly for my labor and expertise, the state feeds my children. I feel I deserve that much, though of course I would rather have a realistic wage and benefits. I’m reasonably happy, but I’d be happier if I could get back the ten years it took me to overcome the educational, social, and psychological burdens of poverty. I’d be happier if the important and valuable work I do paid enough to qualify me to contribute to the American project.
Am I lazy? I’d dispute that with anyone. I earned a 3.8 GPA in my second attempt at college and a 4.0 in graduate school, all while working and helping take care of a family. Though I have been briefly unemployed, I hated every second of it. I take on as much work as I can, balancing my work hours with the needs of our children (who we will not send to daycare) and my wife (who after years as a full time homemaker is now a full time student). I can’t remember the last time I slept more than six hours. Despite having no insurance, I haven’t taken a day off sick in years.
I acknowledge that I could ask my wife to quit school, put my kids in daycare and move them away from our extended families in search of a good-paying full-time job in my field. That would mean sacrificing the people I love most to meet a privileged businessman’s standard of personal value, and I’m not willing to do that. Even if I were, I don’t know that I could find a good job. I’m qualified to teach writing at the college level, but thanks to the state’s failures to adequately fund higher education, 75% of college teachers are like me: underpaid, insecure, part-time “adjuncts.” The good jobs in my field, like those in so many other segments of the American economy, have been gutted or sacrificed so that the rich may take and keep more and more of the wealth that we all labor to produce.
Still, like every working poor person I know, I long to be self-sufficient. Nobody likes being poor, Mr. Romney. You don’t see people who have a choice opting in to this lifestyle. You don’t see people choosing to move into low-income housing, with the lack of security and cramped living quarters that entails. You don’t see people intentionally putting themselves one illness or injury away from homelessness. This is the edge; nobody wants to live here. So of course we want to get away from it. When my wife finishes school, we’ll both be able to work, and that will help. I have a novel draft that’s getting some positive attention, and we could get some income from that. Maybe one of those elusive tenure-track jobs could come within reach one day; I’d love that. The odds may be long, but I want a better life for my family. Pretty much all of us do, and it’s a sign of severe anti-poor bias that you don’t see that.
You got one thing 100% right, though, Mr. Romney: I would never vote for you. Not for any money.
Aaron D. Hoover