“Yes, I want to help feed those facing hunger this Thanksgiving.”
Only, it’s now January and that food bank donation request—with its hopeful, optimistic response box already checked off in a jaunty orange script—is still sitting in my to-do pile. As are two additional food bank solicitations and an appeal from my kids’ summer camp to contribute to their scholarship fund.
As a self-confessed liberal of the “bleeding heart” variety, the fact that I’ve yet to write these checks (which won’t be large) is interesting to me. After all, I donate to plenty of causes on a regular basis (Planned Parenthood, Children International, the DNC) and never give it a second thought. When the donations are recurring and automatically deducted from my bank account, I simply make the commitment and it’s done.
I want to help people; I really do. And yet, when asked to take money directly from my savings and give it to somebody else, it feels hard. A large percentage of human nature, I still believe (well, most days), consists of kindness and compassion. But there’s also a hearty aspect of self-preservation—survival instincts that encourage us to conserve our resources, take care of our own, and hold on to what is “ours.”
Even after a holiday season where so much abundance was in evidence—where there was more food than I could eat and more wine than I could drink (although I gave it my best shot), gifts wrapped in fancy paper, the love of extended family and friends, leisure time and money to spend on movies, ice skating, and holiday light displays—even after all of that I still feel a shameful little tug at the idea of putting $25 in an envelope.
This is why I love taxes.
I mean, I don’t love taxes—it’s money going out the door. And it’s complicated enough that I pay additional money to have someone else prepare my taxes. And I have to hunt down W-2s and receipts for business deductions. Basically, it’s an all around pain in the ass.
But, I believe in taxes. I feel grateful for taxes. I know that if it weren’t for taxes, we wouldn’t have roads or bridges or schools or law enforcement or power grids or cell phone towers or emergency services. We wouldn’t have our military or air traffic control or health care for the elderly or prisons or sewer lines.
After all, who wants to write a check for a sewer line? Yuck.
But, if these monies weren’t collected through taxes, where would they come from? Would Joe Homeowner or Susie Executive—out of the goodness of their hearts—benevolently contribute to these public projects and services? Would they forego that new big screen television or six-figure bonus so that the pipes running under their streets could be brought up to code, or so the school down the street could get a new HVAC system?
I doubt it. I can barely bring myself to contribute to the local food bank.
And I know there are folks out there who feel perfectly comfortable paying taxes to support public infrastructure but object to taxes that help the poor. But really, relatively little—about nine percent—of our federal taxes go to so-called “safety net” programs such as unemployment insurance, food stamps, school meals, low income housing assistance, help for the elderly and disabled, and aid for abused and neglected children. The rest of the budget is divided between our national defense, Social Security, Medicaid/Medicare, and interest on the national debt.
Regardless of your views on safety-net spending, as tax season approaches I believe we could all benefit from a shift in perspective. Instead of resenting what the government is taking from you, take a moment to reflect upon the many and varied benefits you enjoy as a citizen of the United States. Refrain from bitter thoughts about whether or not the tax code is fair (spoiler alert: it isn’t); instead, consider the fact that by participating in this annual rite-of-passage you are contributing to the common good and allowing our nation to function more efficiently, for the benefit of all.
As April approaches, try putting self-preservation aside and giving altruism and gratitude a little more breathing room. With any luck I’ll have these food bank checks written by then.