My recently turned 19-year-old son has been working for just over a year at his first legitimate job as a barista at one of the many Starbucks on Foothill Boulevard. He has actually worked on and off (every summer and many weekends and school breaks) since he was 15, usually doing grunt work or working on a construction crew for a contractor friend of ours. He worked hard and earned decent spending money for his formative years.
With the purchase of his first car, however, came car payments to Grandma, filling his gas tank, repairs and maintenance and more. In other words, the reality and expense of car ownership. Oh, and dating.
Regular income quickly became a necessity. Hence, the ongoing job at Starbucks. He’s good at it, and he particularly likes the many regular customers he interacts with each week. The downside? Besides the many opening shifts which see him up (often even awake) and out the door by 4 a.m., Starbucks is a “real” job. Which means they take real taxes from his paycheck. Which, he has quickly learned, adds up real fast.
Already he’s felt the painful sting of the dreaded withholding tax. First enacted as a “temporary wartime emergency” measure (no tax is ever temporary!), the Current Tax Payment Act of 1943 for all intents and purposes turned employers into unpaid tax collectors, allowing the government to quietly confiscate income tax from every worker’s paycheck. Prior to this, everyone paid their annual tax in one lump sum every March 15.
Can you imagine what would happen today if all working Americans had to sit down at their dining room tables every April, take out their personal checkbooks and write out a single check for the sum total of all taxes owed? How would it feel to send that huge check straight into the hands of the elected elite; they of yes-we-can-but-no-we-didn’t fame, like Tom Daschle, Nancy Killefer, Bill Richardson and Tim Geithner, to name just a few of our new president’s politics-as-usual picks. There’s an idea that would bring about real change. Oh, yes indeedy.
Anyway, my son’s first W-2 form came in the mail this past week. I watched with some sadness as he tore open the envelope and scanned the enclosed document. While I helped to decipher the mysterious myriad of columns, boxes and numbers, I could see on his face the gathering realization that a significant number of the dollars he had worked so hard to earn the past 12 months were gone forever. First he was shocked. Then sad and frustrated. And finally, mad. Just as it should be. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Son: Holy moly!! Look how much of my money they’ve taken!
Dad: Welcome to the working world, son.
Son: Wait, they even taxed my tips?
Dad: I’m so sorry.
Son: So the harder I work, the more I’m penalized?
Dad: I think it’s called behavior modification.
Son: Do I get any of my money back?
Dad: Some, because you’re a full-time student.
Son: Is there any way to not pay taxes?
Dad: Actually, two — sneak into America illegally or get elected to the Senate.
Son: So, basically I’m hosed.
Dad: Like most of us who work for a living. (At this point I felt as awful as years ago when I confirmed his suspicions about Santa Claus.)
Son: Do I have any choice in this?
Dad: Well, yes.
Son: What can I do in the future to keep more of the money I earn?
Dad: Vote Republican.
At least my son is young and already being educated in the hard economic realities of life and politics. That’s a lesson some people never learn.
See you ’round town.
JIM CHASE is a freelance writer and longtime Crescenta Valley resident. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.