A Tax Grab For the Neediest

Everybody’s still waiting for the man with a bag. We want stuff all year long, not only during the holidays.

We all want more. We’ve got a trillion-dollar national deficit and personal credit card debt, also in the trillions, to show for it.

One of the most whimsical – and saddest – sounds of America’s winter season is a radio ad by pajamagram.com selling pajamas for the whole family “including cats and dogs.”

Every time I hear that ad I remember an old friend of mine who liked to say, “Our cats and dogs live better than a lot of people in the world.”

He would say it accusingly, as if it were Americans’ fault that other people live in dire poverty. He himself had a cat. I never suggested that he take her food, send it to Somalia or Ethiopia or ______ (fill in the blank), and get rid of his cat so someone in another country could live.

When it comes to helping the needy, sentimentality and politics ruin good intentions. Most Americans have an innate sense of compassion towards others. We feel sorry for people who are injured or hungry. You can watch the news and see our generous reactions to catastrophes, big and small. We want to be there for people in need.

Americans also have an innate sense of justice. We don’t like con artists or do-gooders and politicians who use other people’s poverty or troubles to promote themselves.

This year’s winter solstice and pleas to remember the neediest coincided with the passage of tax reform legislation. It’s hard to believe any new law that will push America’s deficit further into the trillions can be good, but it has proven useful to organizations making a grab for some of the money.

“Use tax deduction to help homeless kids,” urged Juan Carlos Ordonez of the Oregon Center for Public Policy in an essay in The Portland Tribune.

His idea is to take the mortgage-interest deduction that some homeowners will lose under the new law, and give it to homeless children and their families. Ordonez calls the mortgage-interest deduction “ill-conceived” and “Oregon’s biggest housing program.” He appears to think that all homeowners who use the mortgage-interest deduction are rich and are using the deduction on summer homes.

Losing the mortgage-interest deduction may or may not be a good idea. There are persuasive arguments on both sides. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was ridiculed several years ago when she said of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act that it needed to pass first before we would know what was in it. The fact is, that’s true of much legislation – local, state or national. Many laws lead to unintended consequences.

What is not a good idea is Ordonez’s attempt to create another battle in America’s class war, pitting one side as the villain (someone who has a nice home) vs. the other side as the victim (someone who doesn’t have any home).

It’s easy to feel sorry for homeless children. It’s more difficult to look honestly at how they ended up homeless.

Nevertheless, Ordonez wants to take from people he has deemed rich and give it to others who are poor – and will likely remain poor, because money alone will not change many of the circumstances that lead to homelessness.

Money cannot cure mental illness. It can help pay for medicine to treat some mental illness, but it cannot force a mentally ill person to take that medicine.

Money cannot cure drug addiction. It can help pay for treatment, but it cannot guarantee success. Even the wealthy die of drug overdoses.

Money cannot give someone an employable skill or a job. It can help pay for schooling to teach someone a skill, but it cannot force him or her to learn. It can help pay for resources to locate a job, but it cannot force the employee to work hard or even show up on time.

Here’s the big one, though: Money cannot provide “a safe, stable and nurturing environment,” which Ordonez says is the foundation that children need. No disagreement there, but handing an unmarried mom a check for housing is not going to translate into a safe, stable and nurturing environment – particularly if she has a drug problem or irresponsible boyfriends cruising in and out of her life.

Money can buy stuff, including a roof over someone’s head. It doesn’t automatically change someone’s behavior for the better. It may, in fact, invite trouble (see above reference to irresponsible boyfriends).

Repeated studies beginning in 1994 to 2006 have shown that the family structure producing the best outcomes for children are two biological parents who remain married.

“Never-married women produce the worst outcomes,” wrote social scientist Charles Murray in his troubling book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Citing five specific studies, he added, “I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.”

Instead of chasing more money, especially from middle-class families, folks who want to help homeless children – or better yet, prevent more homeless children – might consider if their most cherished political beliefs really help or hurt.

To pro-lifers: Is insisting on the primacy and sacredness of all zygotes encouraging females to breed, particularly uneducated females? (In 1963, about 3 percent of births were to unmarried white females. By 2008, the number had climbed to 30 percent. For white females who didn’t finish high school, the rate was 60 percent, a rate that was previously associated with the black underclass.)

To pro-choicers: Is insisting that a female’s choice be honored – even if the choice is to have babies she is ill-quipped to raise – encouraging irresponsible behavior?  (See statistics in preceding paragraph.)

To advocates of the mentally ill: Is demanding more money for people, who may not even know what a bank account is, helping them – or helping your organization?

To sympathizers of the homeless, like the Portland community leader I heard on the radio recently say, “We’ve made mistakes and driven people from their homes:” Who is the collective “we” you are blaming? What about the mistakes people made that led them to lose their homes? Did they abuse drugs? Did they live beyond their means? Did they stay too long in a city that was growing increasingly expensive? Most of us have to live where we can afford to, not necessarily where we want to.

Homelessness is going to be with us for a while no matter who inherits the largesse from the home-mortgage interest deduction. There are some encouraging signs, though.

One of the most popular books in 2017 – even in Portland, Ore., where the wait list at the county library stretched into months – was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

This book took off after Donald Trump was elected president, and the media attributed his victory to angry, white males. I suspect the book’s popularity in Portland could be traced to one paragraph in particular that probably resonated with many teachers:

“I remember watching an episode of The West Wing about education in America. … (I)t was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’”

Vance is not an angry, white male – in large part because he had two grandparents who raised him when life with his mother became too chaotic. The childhood drama he describes sounds sadly typical – being asked to provide Mom with a clean urine sample so she could fool her employer, boyfriends coming and going, moving and changing schools.

His grandparents gave him a conservative home in the true definition of the word – a reliable, traditional anchor that was always there for him — and steered him away from a feeling of helplessness.

Another hopeful sign is that even Street Roots, the weekly newspaper sold on Portland streets by vendors who are poor or homeless, occasionally runs stories that acknowledge people’s choices and conduct have led them to where they are.

This being Portland what will continue to receive the most attention in the foreseeable future are protests – even poorly attended ones like the 35 or so local members of the Democratic Socialists of America who gathered in Pioneer Courthouse Square a couple of weeks before Christmas. They carried  signs like, “Class War” and “Abolish Capitalism” and chanted, “Eat the rich, feed the poor.”

Yes, eat the rich, tax them, polish them off. When you get hungry again, then what?

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

From the Archives:

Renters Rights and $10 Cocktails

In Pursuit of Assholes


  • “He would say it accusingly, as if it were Americans’ fault that other people live in dire poverty.”
    That is a profound statement all by itself.

  • What I find shocking is the stats comparing working class white females with the black underclass. One way to close the gap between races, I’d guess. I question your reliance on Charles Murray. He’s with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Doesn’t mean he can’t be right, but he’s been run off some campuses. A controversial source.

  • Conservatives are not all alike (anymore than liberals are). In Murray’s 2006 book “In Our Hands” he proposed government eliminate the welfare bureaucracy and give all Americans 21 years and older a basic income for which they would be responsible. A universal income tends to be promoted by liberals, not conservatives. Murray’s suggestion is different since it would replace the welfare bureaucracy, which seems to promote generational poverty.

    What Murray targets in “Coming Apart” is how political leaders, the media and academia stick together in their prosperous, educated communities and have written off people who don’t live like them. This prosperous class has succeeded on American values of hard work, education and being responsible about procreation (not having babies until they can provide for them). But they don’t try to sell these values to the lower classes. For the less fortunate, they push the virtue of being judgment-free.

    That some colleges have tried to shut down Murray’s speaking engagements underscores that he’s probably on to something, and they know it.

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