United States

Community Work

By Bonnie Weinstein

I came across an email from the Direct Action & Research Training (DART) center—a self-described national network of 21 congregation-based community organizations working toward social and economic justice—touting their good community work. One paragraph stood out in their appeal in particular. It brags about one of their trainees winning a sales-tax increase to fund desperately needed healthcare for indigent patients:

“As a result of her work, the organization won the approval of a permanent half-cent sales tax that will provide over $35 million annually to fund one new health clinic a year for the next five years and increase indigent patients seen from the current 2,000 to 45,000 patients per year.”

Punishing the victim

Sorry, but raising taxes on the poor (sales-tax increases) are not the solution. In fact, it’s a major part of the problem. It’s the wealthy that should be paying their fair share of the taxes. Increasing the sales tax is not community service; it’s community shakedown. The poor are told, “You must pay more out of your own pocket for all nonfood, necessary items to support the meager and insufficient services that will become available!” How is that economic justice?

Cigarettes: The hypocrisy of a regressive tax system

How is it justice to charge tobacco smokers extra taxes for the poison they have been made addicted to? Smokers already are victims of the wholly unscrupulous multi-trillion-dollar business of manufacturing, marketing, and obscenely profiting off the slaughter and addiction of billions of people across the globe.

During WWII and before, the cigarette companies had huge contracts with the government to pack cigarettes into the rations of our troops, ensuring the lifelong addiction of tens of millions of men and women. U.S. military bases in France at the time were named after the different cigarette companies: Camp Old Gold; Camp Chesterfield; Camp Phillip Morris; Camp Herbert Tareyton; Camp Home Run; Camp Pall Mall; Camp Lucky Strike; Camp Twenty Grand; Camp Wings.

But it didn’t stop there. At the very start of the TV age, one of the tobacco companies—claiming that its cigarettes were “smoother” than others-featured a doctor in its ads, wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck. And each manufacturer claimed its cigarettes were not harmful at all! This wasn’t accidental; it was planned to get masses of people puffing away.

It was during WWII that a big push was made to get more women to smoke. This trend had already permeated Hollywood. Nick and Nora Charles of the famous “Thin Man” series were never seen without either a cocktail or a cigarette in their hands. How many Hollywood leading men had cigarettes as trademarks? John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart immediately come to mind. And both died from lung cancer, by the way. (And let me point out here that it’s much easier to battle lung cancer surrounded by the most skilled medical professionals and every luxury money can buy than in a cold tenement or out in the streets burdened by years of poverty, receiving minimal healthcare or none at all!)

Cigarettes were embedded into every aspect of our lives through every form of mass communication at the tobacco companies’ disposal—newspapers, magazines, and billboards. In movie newsreels and in all the movies and TV programs, cigarettes were incorporated as part of normal adult life and something to strive for if you were a child. (Born in 1945 I began smoking in 1954, when I was nine, and stealing cigarettes from my parents. My younger sister set fire to the bathroom curtain when she was sneaking a smoke at about the age of 11. When I set out looking for work as a young woman of 17, I made sure there were ashtrays around and that I was permitted to smoke on the job or I wouldn’t take it. I smoked until sometime in my 50s.)

Tobacco industry subsidized by tax dollars

Today cigarette companies are still getting tax breaks and even in some cases being subsidized by the government! A PBS “Online Forum” dated July 11, 1997, debated an agreement among the attorneys general of 40 states and the tobacco companies to go before Congress to “put in place the first truly comprehensive nationwide system designed to drive down the number of children who become addicted to tobacco products each day, and help adults who are already addicted to quit.” The forum described such subsidies and how they work:

“The agreement calls on tobacco companies to: pay billions of dollars for a host of public education and health programs; reimburse states for the cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses; set aside a multi-billion-dollar fund to compensate smokers who win individual lawsuits against the tobacco companies; and severely curtail marketing and advertising cigarettes, especially to teenagers.... The settlement took months of intensive negotiation. The tobacco industry is rich, powerful, and until recently, doggedly determined to fight any efforts to reform its marketing tactics. To maintain its position, it has even allegedly lied under oath to Congress that it was unaware that nicotine is addictive. So, sign the deal?

“‘Not so fast,’ says Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) whose committee leaders of the tobacco industry allegedly were lied to during a 1994 House investigation. ‘The agreement eliminates class action suits, the state lawsuits, and the right of individuals to bring addiction claims; it caps what individuals can recover annually,’ wrote Waxman in a recent Washington Post article. ‘And it allows the industry to pay for judgments against it—including judgments based on future wrongdoing—by reducing its payments for child health insurance and other public health needs.’ ... On the regulatory side, the settlement gives the industry ‘something equally unprecedented: It effectively bars the FDA from regulating the nicotine content of cigarettes.’

“One provision mandates that the industry pay for the settlement by raising cigarette prices, not by reducing profits. Another makes all industry payments (to states and education programs) tax deductible, in effect forcing taxpayers to pick up 35 percent of the costs.”

Someone else wrote on the same site:

“‘The Federal government already provides price supports for tobacco. Under this agreement, the government would also be obligated to provide 35 percent of the healthcare expenses associated with this industry’s product. The industry ends up getting two government subsidies, then, instead of one.’”

Do not punish the victims

My response to DART is, no—the worker’s movement should have nothing to do with promoting regressive taxes that blame and charge the victims for the crimes that have been committed against them for profit! The poor are not to blame for their lack of healthcare. The poor should not be taxed because they are in dire need of many forms of social services—for improved schools and housing—for a bigger “piece of the pie.”

It’s the corporations that should be paying. In the case of the tobacco industry, every penny these corporations earn should go to fund free healthcare for all those they have addicted.

In general, corporations should be paying for all the environmental damage their careless production practices have caused. They should pay for all the land they have poisoned, all the water they have made unfit to drink, all the air that is making people sicker, all the work-related accidents caused by speed-up or disregard for health and safety practices, and all the injuries due to faulty products and poor manufacturing craftsmanship. Most of all, every penny the war profiteers make should go to the health and welfare of those they illegally and immorally declared war against and those they tricked into fighting the war for them.

Tax the rich!

You can’t solve the overwhelming problems of poverty and injustice by taxing dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo, baby diapers and toilet paper-all the things the poor people need just as much as the wealthy! Just who ends up contributing the most tax dollars?

The wealthy make up one-tenth-of-one-percent of the population and they are currently getting such huge tax breaks that not only are they not paying any taxes but they are getting huge sums of money back from the government, from the very pockets of the overwhelming majority of us who earn less that $50,000 a year—and most who earn far less than that!

Any sales tax on such items has zero impact on the billionaires. But it has a tremendous impact on a family of four trying to live on $15,000 a year! This is food out of their children’s mouths!

Sales tax is one of the most fundamentally reactionary measures ever invented. The same is true for such things as parking tickets and gasoline tax. Capitalism creates a society dependent on these products and then socks it to workers with regressive, punitive taxes that powerfully impacts them—though the sum represents less than the small change that may drop onto the floor of the Bentley.

For progressive income tax

The income tax is the king of all regressive taxes. Working people routinely pay almost 30 percent of their income in federal and state income taxes while the multibillionaires get huge tax breaks to “stimulate” the economy—the old trickle-down theory—and pay a tiny fraction of their income in taxes. To be fair, taxes should be charged on an income-contingent, profit-contingent, proportional basis, with no tax on incomes below $100,000 per year and a progressively higher proportion of tax on incomes above $100,000 per year.

As it is, the current tax structure is actually a massive subsidy for the wealthy—to fund their wars, their acquisitions, their infrastructure, their police, their army, their federal, state, and city governments. It is dedicated to protecting them at the expense of the masses of the poor and working poor worldwide, not just in this country. And you can rest assured that any social services the working poor receive are paid for out of the huge proportion of taxes they themselves have paid!

The gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider, and the chasm is growing at an alarming rate. Community work such as that carried out by DART may be well intentioned but it cannot solve the problems created by the capitalist system. Our efforts are best expended demanding, organizing, and fighting for an end to the wars being carried out in the names of, but against the interests of, ourselves, the masses of American people—and certainly against the interests of the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine who are feeling the brunt of the brutal U.S. military might.

Taxing those who need services the most is not conducive to community wellbeing by any stretch of the imagination. We need to make up for a long history of wanton waste of lives and resources that benefits only the wealthy elite and leaves the rest of us to fight over the crumbs they throw down upon us—when they feel generous, of course.

We must organize to demand that the wealthy pay their fair share, and create a tax structure in which those with the most money pay the most taxes; that those taxes be used to elevate the masses of people out of poverty—to end starvation, homelessness, and illiteracy. And finally, there must be an end to wars fought with our taxes and at the expense of our lives, between between the greedy despots who maintain their stupendously lavish lifestyles safe from harm.