Tax break an empty package for those making little money

November 27, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON Thanksgiving Day, Michelle Sterrette served pancakes. She makes $2.38 an hour at the International House of Pancakes in the 5600 block of Baltimore National Pike in Catonsville. The holiday was beautiful. The pancakes were delicious, and customers were abundant, and at the end of a long day Sterrette went home with a pocketful of tips.

Yesterday, she grabbed an early-morning cup of coffee at the Lexington Market with several other women on their way to the Eutaw Street bus stop to go to work. All talked about the shaky American economy, and the marvelous tax break Washington wishes to dispense. Marvelous, unless you make $2.38 an hour or thereabouts.

"I thought everybody was getting a tax break," Sterrette said.

"Humph," said Roxanne Johnson. She works as a cleaning woman at Allfirst, for $5.15 an hour. At the bank, there are no tips. "The more you make, the more they tax you," she said. "Unless you're one of those rich ones."

"I don't have to worry about that," said Kimberly Carter. She works as a housekeeper for Towson University. She makes $5.35 an hour. "And been making $5.35 for the last two years," she said.

The women huddled around a high circular table at the market, where nearby food stall owners were getting organized after the long holiday weekend. In America, everything has changed since the attacks of Sept. 11. A nervous economy shows increasing signs of trouble; and the national nervousness has not gone away.

"Oh, I see that nervousness when people come in and start drinking," said Diontoinette Barnes. She works for Budweiser Brewing at Baltimore-Washington International Airport's C Pier operation. She works the cash register, fixes food, helps the waitresses when she can. She makes $6.25 an hour, plus a cut of waitresses' tips. She is 30 years old and has seven children, ages 1 to 16.

Around the table, several women reacted quite sweetly to word of seven children. Children are a blessing. But $6.25 an hour is not, and now Barnes was describing the wonders of the American health care system, in which, she said, only her youngest child is eligible for medical assistance, and just how far is $6.25 an hour supposed to go when kids get sick?

In Washington, where they are uttering the word "recession" in public, they have a plan to assist people with money troubles. Not those making $6.25 an hour serving jittery customers at the airport, or those making $2.38 an hour plus tips while serving pancakes on Thanksgiving - but, at the least, those who have a great deal of money in their pockets.

It's the new version of the old Reagan trickle-down theory. Take care of the big-money guys and the corporations, and they'll invest their money so that one day, eventually, if we all live long enough, the money will sift down to the middle class and the working poor - not to mention all those laid off in the current wave of downsizing.

In fact, in the so-called "stimulus package" passed by the House, only about 2 percent of the total package would be disbursed to unemployed workers. Why are such people important? Because they're the first victims of the recession - and the ones most likely to spend whatever money they might receive.

Instead, while giants such as IBM and General Electric will reap huge financial benefits, the new package will continue a trend that began during the Reagan White House years. From 1979 to 1997, the top 1 percent of the population nearly doubled the share of national income after tax cuts, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In raw numbers, the 2.6 million Americans with the highest incomes had as much after-tax income as the 100 million Americans with the lowest incomes. And the 20 percent of Americans with the highest incomes earned as much as the remaining 80 percent.

And the new proposal? Americans with incomes of more than $5 million a year would get an additional tax break of $500,000 over the next four years - over and above the hefty breaks they received from the tax-cut package in June.

Thus we return to the America as it is lived among people who do not clean up at the bank - they merely clean the banks. Or they serve pancakes for Thanksgiving meals, or serve drinks to nervous people at airports.

"You know," Michelle Sterrette was saying, "people say, `Why do you work for House of Pancakes for $2.38 an hour when you used to be able to get $80 a day on public assistance?' But I want to work, see? I've been there 10 years now. Everybody calls me `Big Mouth' because I just love to talk, I love to be around people and run my mouth, you know what I'm saying?"

Around the table, everybody laughed in recognition.

"But those bills," said Sterrette.

"And those children," said Diontoinette Barnes, who has seven.

And those people in Washington, who are ready to dispense billions to those with pockets bulging, and seem utterly clueless about those who are scuffling.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.