money tree

Book reviewers are calling it a “manifesto,” and even sometimes a “jeremiad.” That’s some strong language. I’m usually skeptical about inflammatory words—are such reviews overblown? Is the book itself overblown?

In the case of the 2023 masterpiece of which I speak, the answer is no and no. And, yes, it’s a manifesto. It would be a jeremiad, too, if it didn’t have a thread of hopefulness: a call to action embedded inside the loud and angry lament.

Further, and most shockingly to me, the author’s outcry and rage is entirely justified. This is a manifesto that I stand with.

You may be familiar with Matthew Desmond, because his earlier (2016) book Evicted won all sorts of prizes, including the Pulitzer. That work is not described as a manifesto, for it is more narrative in format. That is, it tells the stories of actual people living in America and struggling with housing. At least this is my understanding; I have not read this book. A copy is on my nightstand, though.

I’m here to tell you about Desmond’s most recent book, which I have read, the manifesto Poverty, by America.

It’s a relatively short book. There’s not much storytelling within. Don’t read it if you want in-depth knowledge of particular people’s lives. Do read it if you want facts about the current operation of the U.S. government, along with a persuasive argument about how we might make changes to benefit society.

Desmond explains that while the U.S. income tax is progressive, many other U.S. taxes are regressive. When you earn more money, a higher percentage of your income is taxed. This is fair because richer people spend a smaller percentage of their income on the basic necessities of life, whereas poorer people spend a larger percentage of their income on basic necessities.

But—the sales tax is regressive. No matter what your income is, you pay the same percentage in sales tax when you buy something. Let’s say you buy a phone, which is a necessity for all people in modern America (with rare exceptions for people who live off the grid, which, contrary to its veneer of simplicity, requires tremendous skills and resources). Everyone pays the same sales tax on the same phone bought for the same price in the same state. The sales tax is unfair because richer people spend a smaller percentage of their income on it, whereas poorer people spend a larger percentage of their income.

Another example of regressive taxation occurs in tax breaks for homeowners. People who own a home can receive tax deductions that are not available to people who don’t own a home. People who own two homes can get even larger tax deductions.

And Desmond notes that a tax break is the same thing as free money. Like, there is literally no difference between the federal government paying you $200 through a welfare or stimulus check, and the federal government saving you $200 on your taxes because you happen to own a home. It might feel different emotionally, but, in your wallet, it is the exact same thing.

Now, Desmond is kind enough to do the research and math for us on how taxes currently work in America. He finds:

“When all taxes are accounted for, we’re all effectively taxed at the same rate. On average, poor and middle-class Americans dedicate approximately 25 percent of their income to taxes, while rich families are taxed at an effective rate of 28 percent, just slightly higher. The four hundred richest Americans are taxed at 23 percent, the lowest rate of all.”

Hmm. Not loving this. In an equitable society, taxation would be demonstrably progressive. And it gets worse:

“The United States could effectively end poverty in America tomorrow without increasing the deficit if it cracked down on corporations and families who cheat on their taxes, reallocating the newfound revenue to those most in need of it.”

OMG, give me a break. The rich are being taxed at an unfairly low rate to begin with. And then, if they cheat and don’t pay their full due amount, they often get away with it? Whaaa? Come on, this is not right.

“I’m not calling for ‘redistribution.’ I’m calling for the rich to pay their taxes. I’m calling for a rebalancing of our social safety net. I’m calling for a return to a time when America made bigger investments in the general welfare. I’m calling for more poor aid and less rich aid.”

Is this sounding like a manifesto yet? Damn right, he’s angry.

I am, too.

Are you?