I’ve run into trouble before but nothing like the trouble I’ve run into with the I.R.S., the government agency whose duty it is to collect our taxes.
They’re coming after me pretty hard. I owe lots of money, half of which is accrued penalties and late fees.
My take home pay for 2006 was less than $15,000, and is even less for 2007. I don’t have much wiggle room but the I.R.S. wants to take all my earnings, leaving me with nothing. If they have their way, I’m left with few choices: I can go hungry, turn criminal, flee the country or kill myself.
I’m doing what I can to finagle some breathing room and work out a solution. I don’t fancy myself an expatriate, fugitive or a bank robber and I sure don’t have the guts to put a gun to my head.
But I have no idea how I’m going to survive if every penny I earn is taken away from me. Frankly, I don’t think anyone earning less $15,000 a year should be taxed, but I’m willing to contribute somehow. God knows I want to be a good citizen. I want to give my share to the common good, to maintain our national security but more importantly to buttress education, the arts and sciences, to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, to support people who need a lift now and then, to provide a safety net for others like myself who have nothing.
Basically, my financial I.Q. registers somewhere in the category of idiot, and because I’ve never liked working for anyone but myself, I got into a jam by not paying my quarterlies. Oops. I know, big mistake and irresponsible.
Still, I need help not a bludgeon to the head. But in this country, things don’t always work that way. We like to hurt people who make mistakes; we like to make them pay for their stupidity. When it comes to real criminal behaviors like those committed by the Bush administration, we give them a pass. We call the evil good and the good evil.
I’ll admit I got into this jam all on my own, not through ill will or malice but through pure and simple financial imbecility. But, in this country, if you don’t make money, lots of money, if the bottom line isn’t your primary goal in life or if you don’t know how to turn a spreadsheet into gold, and you’re unable to add to the coffers, you don’t belong here. You’re less than zero. You eat the scraps, live in a trailer park, and drink Bud Light.
Like plenty of Americans, I have no assets, no money, or even a retirement account. No health insurance or means to make an end. And things are just getting worse. Money’s tighter than ever, and the I.R.S. is breathing down my neck, dipping its collection powers into my meager wages and slim banking account, leaving me with a dollar and some change, because "dey’s a war goin’ on."
I wish I could say that I got into this mess because I’m a tax protestor, or because I’m opposed to the war, or because I oppose taxing the poor, or because I don’t want a penny of my earnings going into the construction of another prison, but I’m not that bold. I wish I could say that I haven’t paid my taxes because I don’t agree with the administration’s policies and the way they have squandered public monies by waging an illegal and disastrous war. I wish I had the courage to do jail time for refusing to pay my taxes on account of my opposition to the most corrupt administration to ever hold office. But I’m not courageous, just financially illiterate. I’m like most schmucks these days, simply trying to get to the end of each month with a little money in the bank for food and keeping a roof over my head.
I don’t have the stomach for jail. I like being a free man. But I’d rather go to jail than be bullied into a corner. If I ever go to jail for not paying my taxes, it will be because of my own stupidity, not for malice or greed or the flagrant violation of U.S. or international law. I’m not as bold as that, not as connected, or protected as those who make the decisions to wage war, raise taxes, find the loopholes to avoid them, and squander the national treasury, making themselves and their friends rich off the backs of the poor, while people like me make do with less and less, or simply go without.
I’ve made my bed and I’ll sleep in it but I couldn’t believe what Ms. Gunner, my taxpayer’s advocate, an independent arm of the I.R.S. designed to help people like me who get themselves into dire straights, said when I asked her why the government comes down so hard on poor people and not on the big money makers and tax evaders who run the country.
"I’ll tell you why," Ms. Gunner said from her office in the deep South.
"All right, Ms. Gunner, why is the government coming down so hard on me?"
"’Cause dey’s a war goin’ on … dass why dey’s bein’ so hard on you." They need every dime they can get their hands on, she said. Gotta have money to support the war.
"Yeah, but they used to be so nice, I mean, I thought they were trying to put on a newer, friendlier, happier face."
Before Ms. Gunner could say anything, I swear I could hear the wheels of her brain clicking, trying to spin out the words that wouldn’t come: That was before George W. Bush, and the mean-spirited people he surrounds himself with, took over the White House. That was before Congress made it impossible for the struggling working class to declare bankruptcy because of uncovered medical bills and the financial malfeasance of CEOs who wiped out their pensions. Instead, she spoke like a diplomat: "Thass befo’ the war. Now dey’s a war, and dey’s gotta be hard on people."
"So they have to crack down on poor people."
"Dass da way it is."
That’s the way it is in the U.S. When the rich and powerful control the national treasury, when corporate powerbrokers and wealthy crooks pull the purse strings, these men and women who have no respect for the environment or the dignity of other human beings, when they call the shots, people who have little or nothing pay for it all. The government comes down hard on the little guys. We’re the ones who pay, even when we don’t have the means to pay. §
STACEY WARDE is editor of The Rogue Voice, a "Literary Magazine with an Edge." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.