The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1999


Wondering where those taxes go: Social contracts meet pierced tongues - over a beer

Bar Talk: for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
"Federally Insured Cash Allotment?"

"Federal Institute of Consumer Advocacy?"

"Federal Income Credit Association?"

These are just a few of the responses I got when I asked local bar patrons what they thought FICA stood for. To find out how people felt about taxes, I visited Doobies, a neighborhood bar near Fitler Square, and Fergies, an Irish pub in Center City.

Maybe Philadelphians don't know the exact translation of the FICA acronym, but they certainly have an opinion when it comes to their tax dollars. Although most of the 25 people I interviewed believed in the importance of taxation, many had reservations about how the money is being spent. The talk quickly turned to priorities.

"I go to meetings in Harrisburg where state policy makers consider how to provide services for homebound seniors," said legal services attorney Pam Walz, 35, "and we're told there's no more state money available, yet we know deals have been cut for stadiums, and there are millions of dollars in surplus."

Military spending was another hot topic in terms of priorities.

"We're the most grossly overarmed country in the history of the planet," said David Loeb, 46, an activist who works with such organizations as Amnesty International and Food Not Bombs, "and we can't even furnish enough textbooks to students in our school district in Philadelphia."

When I asked people whether they got a bang for their tax buck, at least one person took it literally, continuing the thread on military spending. "B-1 bombers, atomic bombs, smart bombs, laser-guided missiles," said musician David Anstine, 31. "Yeah, I'd say I'm getting a bang for my buck."

Few felt they actually knew where their tax dollars are going. "It's blind faith," said Sparks, a 27-year-old systems administrator, while nonchalantly removing his tongue ring to show how he could pass a drinking straw through what he said was a 4-gauge piercing by international wire standards. "If I want my money to go to a good cause, I'd rather give it to the guy down the block."

Doobies manager Patti Brett, 43, wanted to see some evidence of her dollars at work and talked about education, one of the most often-mentioned priorities: "Bars in Philadelphia County pay a 10 percent tax per drink, which we're told goes to schools in the city. But we don't see what happens to that money. If I knew it was really being used for education, I wouldn't mind paying it."

At the same time, there were those who rallied around services we do see but might take for granted. Pedro Rodriguez, 44, a community organizer who works for Action Alliance of Senior Citizens, posed some questions: "How does the trash get picked up every week like clockwork? How do you get the police to respond to 911? How do the armed forces operate? How do you get the weather services to tell you when there's a storm coming?"

Webmaster Richard Doran, 30, found perhaps the most tangible way to explain what he gets back from his city wage tax: "For the last two years, Ed Rendell has cut the wage tax a symbolic one-tenth of 1 percent. If you average that out over the course of a year, it about equals the price of a pizza. If you're lucky, you can also tip the guy."

Receptionist Nancy Butsch, 31, who recently moved to Philadelphia from Virginia with her corgi-terrier mix named Coda, also found a concrete benefit: "At first I was shocked by the city wage tax, but then I saw the dog park in my neighborhood. There's not as much grass here as there is in Norfolk, and I was glad there was a place for my dog to run."

And as Jonathan Quinet, 27, a customer-service representative for Conrail, said, "It takes a lot of money out of my pocket every week, but if I didn't like living here, I'd move back to Jersey."

But whatever the reservations or questions people had, most still felt that paying taxes is a way for them to be involved in what our government is doing. Marwan Kreidie, 38, a civil-service commissioner and president of the Philadelphia Arab American Association, took it one step further:

"It's part of the social contract we have with our government, but to change things, you really need to be involved, register people to vote, empower yourself, empower your community. That's how you participate in society."

And what about FICA? Other creative responses included: "It's a kind of plant, right, like a fern?" and "That money the government takes from me that I'll never get back."

Only Frank Kenny, a 37-year-old small business owner, knew that it stood for Federal Insurance Contributions Act. I myself had to look it up on the Web.


© 1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.