Newman: Poor shoulder disproportionate tax burden in South, West

JHU sociologist examines regional disparities in how Americans are taxed

In an op-ed published over the weekend by The New York Times Opinionator blog, Katherine S. Newman, a professor of sociology and the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, examines regional disparities in how Americans are taxed and how those disparities disproportionately affect poor families.

Newman cites research conducted for her 2011 book "Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged" (which she co-wrote with Rourke L. O'Brien) that shows the relationship between taxing the poor and negative outcomes like premature death. The poor shoulder a particularly heavy tax burden in the South, and increasingly in the West, where states have opted for higher sales tax rates over more progressive forms of revenue generation.

"There are many reasons to worry about the growing regional divide," Newman writes in The Times article. "But even leaving aside basic fairness—why should a poor child in the Northeast have greater life chances than one in the South?—the divergence exacerbates poverty itself, driving households deeper into distress and lowering social mobility.

The fact is, the more the poor are taxed, the worse off they are, whether they are working or not. We all pay a huge price for this shortsightedness. Medicaid payments, food stamps, disability benefits—all of these federal programs swoop in to try to patch up a frayed safety net. Consequently, the Southern states reap more dollars in federal benefits than they pay in taxes (like Mississippi, which saw a net gain of $240 billion between 1990 and 2009), while the wealthier states—which do more to take care of their own—lose out for every dollar they pay (like New Jersey, which handed over a net of $706 billion over that same period). As noble as the federal effort to rescue the poor in the "mean states" may be, it is not enough to reverse the impact of regressive taxation.

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