None of America’s 50 states can completely justify their tax policies in light of biblical concepts of ethics and justice, concludes the latest article by a University of Alabama law professor. Among the worst offenders are states with some of the largest Baptist populations in the country.
“Using the standards of justice defined by Judeo-Christian ethical principles … people in all 50 states are tolerating unjust, and in many states, exceedingly unjust, state and local tax policy that is oppressing the poorest and most vulnerable citizens,” wrote Susan Pace Hamill in “The Vast Injustice Perpetuated By State And Local Tax Policy,” published in the Hofstra Law Review.
Hamill, who has taught at the University of Alabama since 1994, came to her findings after two years researching state and local tax policies across the country. Her efforts not only resulted in “The Vast Injustice” but are the substance of her book, “As Certain As Death: A Fifty-State Survey of State and Local Tax Laws.”
In the article, each state is examined and classified primarily on the basis of two factors: the average dollar amount per student a state allocates toward K-12 education and the proportional tax burden residents bear relative to their income. Theological principles of concern for the poor and vulnerable are the foundation for Hamill’s conclusions.
“Judeo-Christian standards of justice require the ‘community’s laws ensure that each individual enjoys a reasonable opportunity to reach his or her potential,'” she wrote.
Hamill used her research to create an “approximate benchmark” for the adequacy of K-12 funding at $10,000 per child, $14,000 in high-poverty districts. Hamill used this standard to judge whether a state is sufficiently committed to providing education opportunities to “the most powerless and voiceless segment of the population” – children.
Hamill concluded that “most states fail to even come close to this benchmark and no state adequately funds all of its poor school districts.” Accordingly, Hamill cited a “strong” statistical tie “between lower overall K-12 funding and the degree to which the state’s tax policy violates the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics.”
There are three general options for distributing the burden of taxation, Hamill argued. A regressive model includes, relatively speaking, a larger burden on low-income citizens and a smaller burden on those taxed at high income levels. Flat tax models “impose roughly the same proportional tax burden at all income levels,” Hamill explained, while progressive models “impose greater proportional tax burdens as income levels rise.”
Hamill advocates a “moderately” progressive model which strikes the balance between unfairly burdening lower-income citizens and making it prohibitive to “reasonably enjoy private property.” The research finds that no state is using such a model and indeed measures “how far each state is” from a desirable policy.
Using these criteria, Hamill placed each state in one of four groups, categorizing them according to the degree of injustice observed. It is important to note that states are ranked based on a measure both of education dollars and tax burden; states may see more success in one area than another but are judged on the big picture.
A side-by-side comparison of Hamill’s findings with a 2000 population map showing the number of Baptists in a county as a percentage of all residents reveals that 12 of 31 states Hamill deemed most unjust were among the most Baptist-heavy states.
The worst offenders were dubbed the “Foul Fifteen.” Eight states among those with the highest percentage of Baptists rank in this category: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Also in this category were Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.
Next in terms of severity are the “Shameful Sixteen,” states whose tax policy is “slightly less immoral” than the “Foul Fifteen.” Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Missouri found themselves both in this group and among the most colorful states on the 2000 Baptist population map. California, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming were also found in the “Shameful Sixteen.”
The 19 states remaining were divided among three groups. Hamill wrote that these states “while better than the 31 worst states in the country, for a variety of reasons still fail to meet the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics.” The categories are the “Shoddy Seven,” which includes highly Baptist state Virginia, the “Endeavoring Eight,” which includes the highly Baptist state South Carolina, and the “Front-Running Four,” which includes no highly Baptist states. The states in the latter category (Delaware, Maine, New York and Vermont) came the closest to approaching the standards Hamill applied.
Hamill calls on states to raise tax revenue, especially for high-poverty school districts, and lessen the tax burden on lower-income citizens by easing sales and property taxes. She acknowledges this will require higher taxes on wealthier residents.
On a closer-to-home level, Hamill recognizes the challenge of convincing individual Christians to pay more out-of-pocket to see these injustices alleviated. In her work, Hamill has identified tax justice as a “high-sacrifice” issue because of what it requires of the individual whereas issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, important as she believes they are, have little effect on the daily lives of those advocating change.
In an interview with EthicsDaily.com, Hamill said that, at least in the public sphere, Christianity is “becoming a low-sacrifice operation.” She added that “Christ did not preach a low-sacrifice gospel” and his followers cannot just “cherry pick” low-sacrifice issues with which to engage.
Hamill acknowledged that pastors and church leaders face an uphill climb in reaching their church members with this message. She said that proper presentation of biblical truths on the part of leaders and open hearts and minds on the part of congregants can lead to progress.
Despite the inherent difficulties Hamill sees in getting her message across, she does retain some hope.
“Although until recently, moral values based on faith have not been part of the public debate as to what constitutes fair tax policy, the realization that Judeo-Christian moral principles speak to tax policy, as well as other public policy supporting the common good, is starting to catch on,” she wrote.
Hamill added she is somewhat more optimistic about the advancement of tax justice under the Obama administration than she was over the past years with President Bush in office. Hamill has been highly critical of the Bush tax cuts.
Aarik Danielsen is a freelance news writer.