April 15 is a remarkable day. We the People will file over 140 million tax returns and fork over $1.8 trillion dollars to support our government. Almost all of us complain about paying taxes. Almost all of us disagree with how our government spends our money. Pacifists decry defense spending; libertarians denounce funding social programs. Yet, virtually all of us pony up and pay.
At first glance, this enormous collective endeavor might lead a person to think our nation is not so divided as the media—and daily experience—suggests. But closer inspection reveals that even in filing taxes, the United States is a single nation bifurcated into opposite extremes with a shrinking middle.
My tax forms reflect the upper demographic. They include Schedules A, B, C, and E for itemized deductions, dividend income, self-employment, and real estate. I have a wizard accountant who carries forward my capital improvements and depreciation from year to year. He notifies me of quarterly payments due; I am never docked a penalty. As long as I die before he retires, tax day for me will be a breeze.
Not so easy for others, as I learned firsthand this spring as a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) volunteer. Taxes are a completely different animal for low-income people, yet it’s important for them to file. If they worked a W-2 job, they will likely get a full refund of all taxes deducted from their paychecks. (44% of all tax filers owe nothing). In addition, they may be entitled to various credits that the Federal government offers working people, especially working people with children. Certain credits for dependents can reduce a tax liability to zero. Others, like the Earned Income Credit, can actually exceed what a person contributed during the year. It’s possible for a family of four in $40,000-$50,000 income range to receive a ‘refund’ of over $5000—much more than they actually paid during the tax year.
I’ve been a VITA volunteer before. After an evening of training I could complete the basic forms that applied to low-income working people, most of whom only needed 1040-EZ. I’m not an accountant, but my math is sharp and the returns were easy. Most took a half an hour to compete. Some less.
Seven years later, post Affordable Care Act, post tax reform, in the thick of the gig economy, VITA training takes two full days, the1040-EZ is a form of the past, and even the lowest paid of our workforce require a fistful of paperwork. Some evenings this year I completed only one return. Even the simplest take at least an hour.
Like all volunteer opportunities, preparing tax returns for low-income people was an eye-opening experience. I helped people maximize their refund and in kind, I received insight into another part of our society. People arrived with their stack of W-2’s and 1099’s and ACA coverage forms, their receipts for rent and gasoline and childcare. They laid out their life before me in dollars and cents. I tried to be respectful of this intimacy, even though I did not have to reciprocate. Affluence buys me an accountant and preserves my privacy. Poverty dictates they reveal all to a complete stranger.
Beyond the basic 1040 form, there is little overlap between the sheaves of forms that constitute my tax return and the returns of people who come to VITA. Instead of filing lettered Schedules, they file 8332, 8862, and 8965, for credits based on dependents and penalty exemptions for lack of health insurance. They are baffled when they cannot claim the $1000 deduction for gas while driving for Uber because it is only a number they wrote on the back of an envelope. No one told them to keep receipts. Nor did Uber educate them to pay quarterly taxes and their portion of Social Security. It is excruciating to explain to a man of broken English that he must pay a penalty for failing to comply with a tax he didn’t even know about. A penalty easy for educated people with accountants to avoid.
And so, in taxes as in life, the United States contains two separate societies within its borders. It’s easy for us to complain about the 44% of tax filers who get full refunds, to feel like they are a burden on our backs. But would I rather be one of them? I think not.