Saturday, October 29, 2011

Are my tax dollars being wasted?

Each day I have individual meetings with residents who live at CityWalk, an income-based apartment complex in the middle of downtown Dallas. I visit with people who have very little to their name. I haven't had a person yet tell me that they have over $1000 in assets (one of the questions that's asked on the self-sufficiency calculator we  do with people).

As I find out about people, I have realized that my tax dollars are at work helping people. It's a very meager existence and very challenging to survive on that little, but without it, I can't imagine what would happen to so many. If people have any income at all, it might be disability due to an injury or health condition or it might be social security because they're past their prime of working. The benefits for that *might* be around $500. Many of these individuals receive up to about $200 in food stamps, depending on the situation. Finally, they receive housing (i.e. CityWalk) that allows them to pay 30% of their income instead of rent that would probably be close to double their income if they were living somewhere else.

Receiving $500/month isn't the lap of luxury (and many don't receive even that much). I constantly try to figure out how people survive with even their basic needs on that amount...especially if they have children! I know tax dollars are tax dollars. It's my money providing a "living" (if you can call it that) for someone else. The people I've talked to aren't sitting back and enjoying the good life on your dollar. Much to the contrary. They are working to be content with what they receive, but they're trying to find jobs to supplement...or replace...their current income stream from the government (even though most people who find minimum wage jobs will still need that extra help because it will only replace one of their benefits, but will still leave them in poverty).

The way I see it, each of us pay taxes to do greater good than we could do alone. Yes, someone with little or no income might be exempt or might be paying less than I am. I am ok with that because I recognize that $100 out of someone's paycheck of $500 is much different than $100 out of someone's paycheck of $1500.

Right now, I pay taxes *and* I donate money. If I weren't paying taxes, I honestly doubt my donations would increase very significantly. (just being honest) Instead, I would see that as more money going back into my pocket to spend. Plus, if the money were given back to me, I think I would be overwhelmed with wondering which one person to use my money to offset their rent and food expenses...or wondering if I should, instead, donate $10 here and $10 there to spread it out trying to help everyone...and then wonder if $10 would do any good for anyone. I would much rather the money be taken out of my paycheck each pay period so that I can be sure my small contribution can be put in with everyone else's small (or large) contribution in order to help a much larger constituent of people.

Trust me, I'm not naive. I've been working in the non-profit sector for over 16 years now. I understand that there are those who use the system. It's absurd for me to try to tell you differently. In your volunteer efforts, you will undoubtedly meet the handful of people who may explain to you the benefits they receive, which only ensures you (by their actions and decision making skills) that your tax dollars are being wasted. Let me put that into perspective.

Yes, there are some who receive the benefits and are ok with surviving on the little they receive from us and may even abuse it by continuing to use drugs or something. Those are the most visible examples of our tax dollars being "wasted." I would argue that even those tax dollars aren't being wasted, but that's for a different post.

The thing that I think about when I think about how much my government tax contribution is able to stretch in combination with everyone else in this country are the people who *do* need that extra help.

What would happen to my 55-year old friend who is on disability if he didn't have the assistance? He doesn't have family who can help him because they, too, are working at minimum wage jobs. Where would he live? How would he eat? What would happen if he had a heart attack on the street from his rough life? Would he just die because no hospital would be required to serve him? Who would care?

What would happen to my 32-year old friend who has a 6-year old son? She is constantly looking for a job...any job...but can't seem to find one who will hire her. She wants to go back to school to become a nurse. Without government assistance (i.e. financial aid), that dream would absolutely never be a reality because she has no job to pay for it to help her move further along. What would she eat? How would she feed her child? What happens when she gets some kind of treatable illness (like maybe thyroid issues...or diabetes), but can't take care of them? What happens to her son when she can't care for him any more? How does he (or she) get food? How does she feed her son healthy foods so that he doesn't get diabetes?

For those who want less (even minuscule) government and want people to provide for themselves, I have a hard time believing they have thought through these things and are willing to say, "Let them starve," or "Let them die." If they have and are still willing to say that, I am very concerned about their humanity. Does that kind of cruelty really exist in our country? Surely not. I have to believe that we are not that inhumane.

If my tax dollars can eek out survival for those I just mentioned, I truly am not as concerned about the much smaller but much more visible handful who convince us that our tax dollars are being wasted.
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