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Give Teachers and First Responders a (Big) Tax Break

David Lincoln, an experienced paramedic in Brevard County, Florida, makes about $60,000 a year for a 56-hour workweek. He moonlights at an urgent care center for another 19 hours a week to survive.

Without the second job, “I’d be living paycheck to paycheck,” said Lincoln, 43, who fretted that he “crams in” time to play with his 7-year-old daughter because of his busy schedule.

Some Democrats tout big plans to improve the lives of struggling Americans such as Lincoln. Senator Kamala D. Harris, for instance, recently introduced the “LIFT the Middle Class Act,” which would give families earning less than $100,000 a year a monthly $500 payment.

The plan deserves praise, but given Republican control of Washington, it amounts to political theater.

A more modest but achievable proposal — what I call the American Heroes Tax Credit — might be harder to oppose. Let’s give firefighters, EMTs, law enforcement personnel, teachers, nurses, and active-duty military who make less than $100,000 a year a permanent $2,000 annual tax credit.

These are people who work toward the collective good. They deserve recognition — and a ladder up.

An annual Gallup survey ranked nurses, high school teachers, and police among the top five most honest and ethical professions. Firefighters earned the top rating when they were included in the survey after the 9/11 attacks, and their bravery during the recent California wildfires undoubtedly bolstered their standing.

Lincoln has already thought about how he might spend his “raise.” He imagines settling bills and paying for his 7-year-old daughter’s gymnastic classes.

But he believes that his younger fire department colleagues — who often live “with mom and dad” — would particularly welcome tax relief. He recalls that seven years ago, when he made roughly $33,000 — about average for the profession — he relied on food stamps.

Richard Pierce, president of the union that represents Lincoln, argued that low wages drive turnover. That’s a problem faced by teachers in many parts of the country, too.

Governing magazine studied the wages of college-educated teachers older than 25, finding that on average, they made barely 60 percent of what comparable private-sector employees take home. Parents joined picket lines in several states last year for a reason; they don’t want their first-graders educated by a bleary-eyed teacher who stayed up all night driving for Uber.

Meanwhile, new Army privates make about $20,000, and a 2013 Census Bureau report found that 23,000 active-duty service members use SNAP benefits. “I’ve heard so many stories about military parents going without meals so their children can eat,” said Taylor Mille, who works for a food bank in Norfolk, Virginia, a Navy port. “This is wrong on so many levels.”

To be sure, people in professions not covered by the American Heroes Tax Credit might wonder, “What about me?”

Gerald Friedman, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, predicts “a spillover effect” as employers in other industries raise wages to retain workers who might leave jobs to fight fires or teach. And, he adds, “there would be some economic stimulus from more money going to lower-wage earners.”

Some localities have experimented with similar tax breaks. Baltimore, for instance, recently started giving police and firefighters who live in the city a $2,500 property tax credit. Pennsylvania allows local fire chiefs to reward volunteer firefighters with earned income and property tax credits.

Former Republican representative Richard L. Hanna sponsored a bill giving volunteer firefighters a $1,000 tax credit in 2013. It didn’t pass, but Hanna still thinks it’s good politics. “Everyone could go back and brag about it” to constituents, he said, because “virtually everyone has a volunteer or paid fire force.”

And everyone — especially politicians — wants to be a hero.

David Wallis is the managing director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. A longer version of this piece ran in The Washington Post.

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