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Jo Comerford's picture

In 2011, I taught two summer courses, directed a federal budget research organization and paid taxes.

Taxes are the dues I pay for living in a democracy. Like you, I contribute at the local, state, and federal levels.

I want us to fall a little bit in love with the federal budget and there’s no better place to begin than understanding where our federal tax dollars go. So, I’d like to tell you a story – my story – of how the federal budget – our tax dollars – affects my life.

Meet my children.

My daughter is six going on 33, a courageous, big-hearted cyclone. My son is four. In one instant, gentle and wise, and in another, some sort of combo-platter super hero. My wife Ann and I adopted our children a few years ago, though the Department of Social Services. They are the joys of our life and each other’s best friends. We think our son will be an engineer or a scientist. He uses words like stupendous and ominous. Ann and I can no longer spell in front of him. Our daughter belts out original compositions in the shower and is a fierce protector of the under-dog.

What do my kids have to do with your taxes?

People like you and me are our nation’s bill payers. This year we’ll generate 80% of federal revenue thanks to our federal income and payroll – or FICA – taxes, coming up with about $2.6 trillion – one taxpayer at a time.

Our money funds a big, nebulous thing called the federal budget.

We put our income taxes in to a big pot of money called the Federal Fund. They are joined there by comparatively smaller contributions generated by corporate, estate, gift, and custom taxes, as well as by the money our nation borrows in years when we’ll spend more than we expect to make from tax revenue. This pot pays two-thirds of our nation’s bills and we receive direct payments, goods, services and “things” of all shapes and sizes – from affordable housing to national parks.

Our payroll taxes are earmarked – meaning that they are dedicated for particular programs. They go into separate pots of money called Trust Funds and pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Now, I border on nerdy but even I realize that the three words: “the federal budget” don’t necessarily instill great excitement in most people. In fact – and here’s a paradox – while the federal budget is often the centerpiece of heated and high stakes national debates, very few of us actually know what it looks like. This disconnect is what allows policy makers to play political football with the federal budget. If we really knew how our lives were intimately connected to myriad, tiny federal programs – and the way we fund those programs – the phrase “representative democracy” would actually mean something.

When my daughter was an infant, she struggled mightily with significant physical delays. She didn’t walk until she was two – and it would have taken her much longer if it were not for the physical therapist sent by the federally-funded REACH program.

Our tax dollars at work.

She fell behind again a year later and we entered an early intervention program through the public schools.

Our tax dollars at work. Again.

Medicaid, or a program we call Mass Health, kept both kids healthy. When they were en-utero and infants, they also benefited from the federal nutrition programs WIC and food stamps.

Against all odds, these services leveled the playing field for my son and daughter. In 2006, 2007, 2008, those of us paying federal income taxes supported the programs that helped my kids. Thank you. You made a difference. You changed lives. Forever.

By now, you may be wondering by now how your tax dollars breakdown. Just how much did you contribute to my children’s success?

By way of illustration, let me show you how my 3,925 2011 federal income tax dollars shook out. Last year, I paid $839 to health programs like Medicaid – or roughly 20 percent of my income taxes. I contributed $106 for food stamps. I also spent 27 percent of my taxes on the Pentagon and war.

Now, I’ve had a lot of advantages in my life: some I was born with, some I worked for, and a lot provided by our government.

I was able to attend college because of a federally subsidized student loan program. Not so much different from today’s Pell Grants which will open the door to higher education for more than 9 million students this year.

We’d be here all night if I attempted to name all the visible and largely invisible ways that government programs make my life better.

And it’s not just me – of course. Every single one of us benefits from safe food, a highway, bridge and technology infrastructure, Community Development Block Grants, renewable energy research and development – and on and on.

Right now, my income far exceeds the ridiculously low eligibility thresholds for food stamps and WICYet I want my taxes to fund these public programs.

Look, I think my kids are the brightest stars in the sky. But – in truth – they are no more brilliant or beautiful or kind than your children, or my neighbor’s kids or the kids down the block. When my kids needed those relatively small federal programs they were there – funded through the federal budget by our tax dollars. And they worked like giant launching pads. So why not extend that little bit of justice to other kids, other families? A little bit of justice goes a long way.

My daughter started kindergarten this year. Twenty-five percent of her elementary school’s students receive free or reduced lunch. It’s a Title I school – meaning that it qualifies for a little more funding to meet the needs of kids whose families are currently low income, or kids thought to be high risk. Title I and the school lunch program are federal initiatives. Since no one learns if some students are hungry or homeless or cold or afraid, these programs help everyone.

I paid a shockingly small amount toward education through my 2011 federal income taxes. $98.12 or about two and a half cents on each dollar – for Pell Grants, Community Colleges, Vocational Programs, Head Start, and Title I.

I want to pay more.

We need to pay more – even as we look for efficiencies and cost savings to help close our annual deficit. And we need to ask the wealthiest among us to join in. Many of them are willing. They know that federal income taxes are at their lowest point in more than half a century. They understand better than I do the ways in which their personal success is tied to our nation’s well-being.

Remember $3,925 is just the amount I paid in federal income taxes. At the federal level, I also paid FICA or payroll taxes.

Like income taxes, these payments came out of my paycheck and went to the federal government to fund Medicare and Social Security. Medicare and Social Security are accessed largely by folks when we get older. Now, if you’re younger than 50, you may be thinking that your FICA taxes aren’t really doing anything right now.

Please meet Joan Shanley.

Generally speaking, you don’t mess with nuns and Joan is no exception. Joan was a Sister of St. Joseph for more than 25 years. She’s my aunt – one of the people who raised me. She was a school social worker in New York City who took stairs two at a time. As part of the Catholic Worker movement in New York’s Lower East Side, she battled racist redlining and joined national boycotts in solidarity with workers’ rights. It seemed to me when I was a kid that she was in jail for civil disobedience more than she was out. Like a big clanging bell, Aunt Joan’s life example woke me up to the world as it ought to be, the world within my reach if I simply focused on things other than my hair or my nails.

Joan worked her entire life. Like you and me, she paid into Social Security and Medicare. Today she has Parkinsons, Hydrocephalus, Osteoporosis and all manner of illnesses. In a million years she would never have imagined the end of her life to look like it does – but it does. Life isn’t always fair or predictable.

Without Medicare – our payroll taxes – Aunt Joan could not afford her medical bills. But even with Medicare and Social Security, a pension and her savings, Joan’s money is running out. Quickly. In two weeks, we’re moving Aunt Joan into a nursing home nearby. We’ll sell her apartment to pay the bills until there’s nothing left. It will take about three years for her money to run out – less time if there’s a switch in the White House and proposed changes to Medicare affect beneficiaries.

And then we’ll access Medicaid. Provided Medicaid still exists.

In this high stakes moment – so many things hang in the balance. Think about the return on investment in this equation.

I can’t purchase cancer research on the open market. I can’t broker environmental regulations for multi-national corporations. I can’t lift national reading and math scores, or help create employment opportunities for the scores of young people entering the job market. Can you?

Of course not. But together we can. And it takes more than a thousand points of light to get this kind of heavy lifting done.

Remember, the federal budget looks like two things: what we pay in taxes and what we – as a nation – receive in goods, services, programs – and in tax breaks, like the ones I get because I own a home and have kids.

In Massachusetts folks pay into the federal budget and we each receive an average of $5,600 back in direct spending – not including tax breaks. More than a quarter of our state’s budget also comes from the federal coffers, making its way to businesses and city government throughout our Commonwealth.

The federal budget is my family and yours.  It’s at the very heart of our democracy; it should be our nation’s values in numbers. But, if the budget’s in our midst every second, why don’t we have a clue how works?

Here are three ideas:

#1 This may be a flash of the obvious: the budget is complicated. In fiscal year 2013, the budget will be about $3.67 trillion. That’s a lot of zeros and I get paid a decent wage to study this stuff.

#2 And even when I managed to grab hold, polarized rhetoric threatens to shake me loose. Because abject myths like our nation is broke or 47% of us pay no taxes are corrosive.

Shame on major politicians and some media for avoiding today’s tough budget truths or for issuing downright lies. And shame on us for making their job easy. Since we’re part of the problem, we must be part of the solution as we talk back – on blogs, at potlucks, through email and letters to the editor, through our purchasing power and vote.

#3 Finally, and this is what snags me, it’s difficult to remember that we’re powerful – you and me – individually and so much more so collectively. Together, we are stronger than money in politics and we are smarter than spin doctors.

Every day we’re told in one way or another that nothing we do makes a difference. Don’t buy it. Person by person – from the bottom up – we are the building blocks of democracy. Taking ourselves out of the democratic process simply means that those with power and access today will have more power and access tomorrow. And we can bet that their federal budget isn’t going to look a lot like us.

We have the ability – and responsibility – to tackle our nation’s budget problems. But we have to get smart and take action. We have to risk something. We have to be uncomfortable. And speaking of uncomfortable, I have a confession.

I don’t always act. More than I’d like, I’m on the sidelines. I think. I groan. I’m drawn to mindless television and magazines.

But no more. Today I start fighting. For my kids, and for Aunt Joan, for my community, and our nation. I’m fighting because in a healthy democracy we must contribute and participate. It’s the only way to hold our government accountable.

Here’s what I’m going to do:

I’m going to talk about my taxes – both how our nation spends them and how I want them spent. Taxes are my sweat equity and if I talk about them, my budget fight becomes personal, powerful, and resilient.

In my life, I spend money on things I want, things I value.

Well, I don’t want to pay $1,060 for the military and war when I only pay $14 for the Education, the Training, and the Rehabilitation of our Veterans. I don’t want to pay $27 for nuclear weapons when I pay .59 cents for PBS and NPR.

I said a moment ago that the federal budget looks like you and like me.

That’s true to some extent – but I want a better likeness.

How are you personally connected to our nation’s budget? What are your priorities and how do they match up with your tax dollars? How are you going to take action so that your federal budget reflects your values?

If you don’t know – let’s find out.

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