A Message to Middle Class: Stop Whining

May 17, 1992|By TIMOTHY J. MULLANEY | TIMOTHY J. MULLANEY,Timothy Mullaney is a business writer for The Sun.

I was 14 when New York City had its fiscal crisis and went to Washington, as supplicants do, expecting to be bailed out in 1975. And when Jerry Ford initially said no, the New York Daily News supplied a headline I'll never forget: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

Seventeen years later, the country has sunk to a self-pity worthy of 1975 New York, and it's time for another president to give us a new headline, one you should see but won't. How about "Bush (or Clinton) to Middle Class: Drop Dead?"

Exit polls tell us this year's middle class voter is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. No one does anything for the middle class, Mr. Middle Class says. The government just bails out S&Ls and gives tax breaks to fat cats. And the spending

giveaways to welfare queens! I'm gonna write my congresswoman!

But politicians aren't the problem. We are. Sure Washington has thrown money around all these years. We in the middle class should know this better than anyone: They've thrown the biggest chunk of it at us. And we've yelled for more.

It's really a joke, the thought of Mr. Middle Class crabbing that the government wants too much of his money. He would write his Senator in an educated tone, the result of four years of federal Pell Grants and Perkins Loans that helped send him to college, from a house whose mortgage interest and property taxes he writes off each year, in a suburb that wouldn't exist in its present form if Washington hadn't paid most of the bill for its highways and sewers. What a farce.

The punch line, of course, is that this vision is no fantasy. It happens every day. And a look -- an honest look -- at any of our lives, any of our communities, will prove it.

Consider Mr. Middle Class' life. The list of entitlements above costs big bucks -- $5.4 billion for the Pell Grants, another $5 billion for the student loans. Taxpayers wrote off $131.3 billion in state and local taxes and $193.2 billion in interest in 1989.

This list doesn't even get into Social Security, the child care tax credit, Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance, the non-taxation of company-paid benefits, and on and on.

The mortgage interest deduction is probably the biggest freebie of all. It arguably adds up to 28 percent to the value of every house in the country, a handout food stamp scammers never dreamed of.

Better yet, consider my middle-class life in a county where Spiro Agnew -- Mr. Silent Majority himself -- was once county executive. Then ask yourself how whether the government is putting it to the middle class.

When Robert Young ruled the roost on "Father Knows Best," making it into the middle class was the measure of success. Like nearly everyone I grew up with, I've done that.

So how did I make such a success of myself?

Four years of college -- and four years of Pell Grants, along with National Direct Student Loans at 3 to 5 percent -- didn't hurt. Neither did a year of graduate school -- aided by a Guaranteed Student Loan, plus I wrote off my tuition on my taxes. Now I go to law school at night; since I go to a state school, tuition is only about 67 percent of the school's budget. And the law school has it tough. Tuition pays only 21 percent of the University of Maryland system budget.

What my wife and I earn is between the IRS and us, but it's more than Maryland's median household income of $45,034, while nowhere near rich. How much of it do we give back? We paid about 12 percent as federal income tax last year.

We didn't cheat. We simply bought a house, then wrote off the points, the interest payments on our federally-insured mortgage, the property taxes, our state and local income tax and what we gave to the United Way. In other words, we acted as middle-class people act and were rewarded for it.

I pay about $1,200 a year in property tax. For this, I can send as many kids as I want to public school. If, like my parents, I had seven kids, would that be a bad deal? Baltimore County spent $6,007 a pupil in the 1990-91 school year; private schools near my house charge from $2,250 to $9,250 each. I also pay about $1,000 a year in local income tax. For that, I get police protection that arrives lickety-split when called, a park system that should be better and all the usual services. I pay nothing to Baltimore City, where I spend up to 13 hours a day. There are worse deals.

And don't forget: Maryland has the third highest state and local taxes in the nation, according to Money magazine. In Alaska, I'd pay a lot less.

I'm not saying pro-middle class policies are bad ideas. Promoting home ownership is both wise and humane, as is promoting higher education and quality child care. But as many problems as I have, this middle class guy has a hard time feeling picked on.

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