Two related but contrasting stories went viral this week, illustrating a truism about government: someone has to pay for it.
On Monday, Oxfam released a report finding that, during the pandemic, the world’s ten richest men more than doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion—at a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3 billion a day.
Surely this has much to do with the increasing unfairness of the U.S. tax system. The highest earners—the 400 richest Americans—now pay the lowest tax rate of any income group.
“This is the biggest surge in billionaire wealth since records began,” the report concluded.
Then on Wednesday, AL.com published an article by journalist John Archibald exposing a small Alabama town’s use of aggressive policing to raise revenue.
In 2018, the town of Brookside began building what Archibald calls a “police empire,” hiring more and more officers, writing more and more tickets, and towing more and more cars. By 2020, Brookside’s police were making more misdemeanor arrests a year than the town has residents. They went from towing 50 vehicles in 2018 to 789 in 2020. They levied fines and seized cars and other belongings to the tune of $610,000 in 2020—49 percent of the the town’s skyrocketing revenue.
As Archibald reports, “Brookside is a poor town, 70 percent white, 21 percent Black, with a small but growing Hispanic population and a median income well below the state average.”
So it’s no surprise that many residents are struggling to pay the fines and fees, some owing thousands in debt. But they’re fighting back. The town now faces lawsuits for allegedly fabricating charges, using racist language, and “making up laws” to stack counts on people.
“Brookside is a poster child for policing for profit,” said Carla Crowder, director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice.
The story reminds me of Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was infamously killed by a police officer in 2014. In the wake of the tragedy, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the city was using policing to maximize revenue, “sometimes,” as The Atlantic reported, “going so far as to anticipate decreasing sales tax revenues and urging the police force to make up for the shortfall by ticketing more people.”
The takeaway from all of this: When the rich don’t pay their fair share in taxes, the rest of us have to pay more—through higher taxes, tolls, and water rates, and more tickets, fines, and court fees.
We know what the government is capable of, if it’s aimed at helping all of us, regardless of where we’re from, what we look like, or how much (or little) money we have. For example, Boston recently expanded the city’s already wildly popular free bus service. Seattle is giving an additional $3,000 to childcare workers.
What we need to do is make the right people pay their fair share to make more of those sorts of things happen.
Photo by Daniel Oberhaus, 2019.