Tax season and here I am in the office preparing people’s tax returns. Of course, every season brings new things. This year, supposedly because of that late “fiscal cliff” legislation, several forms are being delayed in acceptance by the IRS. Education Credit and Depreciation form being two which were finally accepted last week and there are others which are still awaiting approval. But there were some forms which were right there from day one.
Our tax system is largely an honor system, enforced by mainly random audits and programmed red flags. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been ripe for people to fudge in order to get more back in the form of refundable credits. I have seen tax office waiting rooms in which people are trading off their children’s SS cards so that strangers can claim a “nephew” at home out of a child who won’t help his parent get any more back. Yeah, bad of them, but I am not the tax police and unless the client is blatantly lying to me – and I have told people to leave – it is an honor system. They tell me and I fill in the form they will sign. I do not begrudge anybody who is eligible for the EITC a little more. One time, I completed a young woman’s tax return. She looked at her refund and said bitterly “I have a friend who gets back $2500 more because of the earned income credit.” I said “Yes, you could get $2500 more. All you have to do is earn $10,000 less an year and be a single mom.” It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.
This year, however, the IRS decided to put more pressure on the tax preparers to be the Tax Police when it comes to the EITC. I don’t know how universal this is, but the tax software my company uses has five pages of questions which must be filled out to make sure the client qualifies for the EITC. Without every question answered, I cannot e-file the return. Besides the usual questions on residency and whether one taxpayer is used on another’s return are questions like “You are head of household. Is your marital status Never Married or Divorced or Separated or Widowed?”, “You are claiming your Nephew (or grandchild). Where are this child’s parents?” I have to answer a question whether I think the income is sufficient for the family size. “Do you receive any non-taxable income such as Food Stamps or Section 8?” I started the season calling this the “scared straight questions” but now I call them the “shame questions”. One of the questions I have to answer is whether I got this information from the taxpayer. When I get to that one, I look up and ask "You're the one I'm talking to, right?"
But there’s another part of this that’s bothering me. Like everything else, the focus is on the poor. There are no shame questions in Pasadena, TX, asking Oil companies to justify, or at least entertain us by their jumping through hoops for, their free government money. No one is sitting in a Manhattan tax office answering questions on their millions of dollars in income and bonuses. “I see you made your money in commodities. Do you have anything to do with wheat, personally? Do you grow or manufacture with it? How many people do you estimate starved to death on the other side of the globe because you played with wheat prices like it was monopoly money?” I guess when you make hundreds of millions a year, you probably don’t notice that even in this country, milk is $3.49/gal and the cheap hamburger is $3.99/lb.
One man in the office, who is all in favor of eliminating the EITC, jokes about the five pages we have to print out and have the client sign. “What about reducing the paperwork?”, he jokes. Well, there’s the fact that the party which hates the EITC and those who get it and wishes to eliminate it - but until then will shame the recipients - also hates the environment and loves selling the Koch brothers’ paper products for them. I have also said that had Romney won, we’d not only have pages of shame questions to ask, we would be making these people pee in a cup and send it to Rick Scott’s health clinics in Florida.
All-in-all I have seen this goofy tax season as the same Republican agenda: defund and otherwise sabotage a federal agency's ability to run smoothly and then point to the ineptness as further proof that the government can't do anything right. But to that has been added the deliberate shaming of people at the lower end of the economic scale - the 47% that it's no one's job to care about.