In his 1/9/98 article “Following the Money,” reporter Ben Joravsky describes the League of Women Voters of Chicago’s report on the tax system as “proving” that the poor are paying more than their fair share of taxes. Joravsky quotes the report as finding that “the poorest 20 percent of Illinois taxpayers pay almost 14 percent of their income in sales, property, and income taxes. The richest 1 percent pay about 6 percent.” This is factually impossible. The top effective federal income-tax rate is 39.6 percent, which, when combined with an Illinois income-tax rate of 3 percent, means that the richest 1 percent pay 42.6 percent of their income just on income taxes (sales, property, estate, and other taxes further increase this percentage). Thus, either Joravsky has misquoted the report or the report itself is factually incorrect.
A true journalist writing an article on the “fairness” of the tax system would focus on what is meant by the term “fair.” Joravsky and the League of Women Voters obviously believe that “fair” means the more one earns, the more one pays. This is one view. Another view would be that fair means an equal tax rate for all citizens, poor or rich, since all citizens have equal access to benefits (and one could well argue the poor use proportionally more benefits in the form of public housing, schools, food and utility assistance, legal aid, etc).
In any event, Joravsky obviously never intended to write a serious piece on the fairness of the tax system–his full headline, “The League of Women Voters takes aim at our increasingly regressive tax system,” shows his political bias. Joravsky’s article not only fails to educate, it fans the flame of class conflict. If the Reader is to become more than a collection of apartment ads and personals, it must set higher journalistic standards.
B. Lane Hasler
Ben Joravsky replies:
One must be willfully ignorant of recent tax history to think that there’s a rich guy anywhere who pays his full 39.6 percent. According to the IRS, tax breaks, credits, exemptions, deductions, and shelters added up to about $450 billion in 1996.
In 1993 about 2,400 Americans making more than $200,000 paid no federal income taxes, according to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune. In addition the IRS reports that about 18,000 of the country’s highest-income taxpayers pay less than 5 percent of their income in taxes.
As for who gets what out of the federal budget, in 1996 3.6 percent of the budget was spent on defense, 11.5 percent on entitlement (that is, social security and medicare), and 3.2 percent on interest payments (a huge chunk of which went toward paying off the savings and loan disaster), according to the League’s report. Only 3.3 percent went for domestic expenditure.