Politics & Policy

The Cruelest Tax in Clinton’S Arkansas

The ex-president has no moral authority to speak on behalf of the poor.

Bill Clinton, throughout his long political career, has maintained that he is looking out for the proverbial “little guy.” Those of us who grew up in Arkansas living under either one of Clinton’s regimes as governor (1979-80, 1983-92) know better, and have often wondered why his alleged concern for the downtrodden never extended to one of life’s necessities — the sales tax on food, undoubtedly the cruelest tax in Clinton’s Arkansas.

My curiosity about this has grown following Clinton’s remarks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Clinton said the thing that “pained me most” was that those making the decisions did not appear to understand how poor people lived.

The next time you hear the former president talking about his concern for the poor, close your eyes and think of the following real-life scene:

. . . It’s a hot and humid summer morning in rural Arkansas. A flash of sunlight reflects off the handlebars of an old weather-beaten bicycle with a bent frame. The bike is rusted and silver, not gold, like so much else in this neighborhood of struggling, working-class families. The bike’s rider, a thin, middle-aged man, is sweating profusely as he toils under the mid-morning sun. Two crumpled brown bags, nearly full of aluminum cans, sit in the wire mesh silver basket attached to his bike. Every clink and clank of metal brings him closer to his goal of earning spending money for the week. He could be someone’s father, and is certainly someone’s son. . . .

While driving in rural Arkansas, I witnessed this scene — not an uncommon sight out in the country where I grew up. For me it symbolizes economic conditions in the Arkansas that Bill Clinton did so much to create.

Arkansas is a poor state. One measure of that poverty is per capita personal income. In 1979, when Clinton first took office as governor, it was 77 percent of the U.S. total. A quarter century later it is virtually unchanged at 78 percent. Meanwhile, per capita disposable personal income has remained at 79 percent. Today Arkansas ranks 49th overall in per capita income, next-to-last and ahead only of Mississippi. That’s about as low as cotton grows.

Certainly, Arkansas’ income woes are not all a product of Clinton’s long decade in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. But in a state with so little income, and so many poor people, he did nothing to end the sales tax on food — which at the least would have been a humane policy to aid the least-well-off among us. The sales tax on food in Arkansas is regressive in that the burden of the tax falls disproportionately on the poor. That’s one reason why 43 of our 50 states do not tax food, one of life’s necessities.

If you had just met Bill Clinton and took him at his word that he is bent on helping the poor, and had never visited Arkansas, you might even believe he said the following:

Repealing the tax on food and medical services has been our most important accomplishment in this session. This was a regressive tax on poor people, on middle-class people.

Or this:

I have always said that food, the very thing that sustains us, should not be taxed.

Alas, these words were not spoken in Arkansas. Two other Democratic governors, New Mexico’s Bill Richardson and Georgia’s Zell Miller, spoke these words as they successfully fought to end the food tax in their states.

A coalition of libertarians and fiscal conservatives — fought the good fight to end Arkansas’ food tax in 2002. Their effort, supported editorially by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, fell short.

They, not Bill Clinton, have earned the moral authority to speak on behalf of the poor.

– Sarah Kaza, a former teacher, is a full-time mom in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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