Katherine Newman, Johns Hopkins’s new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, is a busy lady. Along with being an administrator, she also serves as a sociology professor and a widely-cited expert on a number of issues. You may recall seeing her name around quite a bit in the weeks after the Newtown shooting; Newman is an expert on school shootings. This week, though, she tackles a different subject in the New York Times: how certain states (especially in the South and West) unfairly shift their tax burden to the poor.
According to Newman, state-level tax policy is widely uneven across the United States, resulting in a situation where a working mother in Mississippi would owe $2,300 more in taxes than someone making the exact same amount in Vermont. In other words, while federal taxes are generally progressive (the more you earn, the greater the percentage you have to pay), in some states — particularly in the South and the West — tax policy is regressive:
Southern states have steadily increased the tax burden on their poorest citizens by shifting the support of the public sector to sales taxes and fees for public services. After California voters passed Proposition 13, which capped property-tax increases, in 1978, Western states began to move in a similar direction. Sales taxes on clothing and school supplies and fees for bus fare and car registration take up, of course, a far bigger slice of a poor household’s budget than they do from the rich.
Over the same 30-year period, some Northeastern and Midwestern states moved in the opposite direction. They mimicked the federal government by passing their own earned-income tax credits (and making them refundable, as the federal government has done, so that very low-income earners get a check after filing their returns), preserved progressive state income-tax rates, and either exempted food and other basics from sales taxes or gave sales-tax rebates to low-income households. No Southern state provides refunds to its poor citizens through the tax code, no matter how little they earn.
The effects of these tax policies are long-lasting, Newman says, and can even be linked to things like property crime and premature death. It’s a self-defeating pattern, she writes. How do we fix the problem? Tax luxury goods, not staples; exempt necessities (food, medicine, children’s clothes) from sales tax; and issue tax rebates to the poorest citizens. It’s a thorough and compelling argument; read the full text here.