Dear Mitt Romney,
I was in high school, and I worked at a fruit stand. Each morning that summer, I walked about a half-mile to the bus stop, and then rode through the pre-dawn streets of Baltimore, so that I could be there to unload the truck before the stand opened at seven. To make minimum wage.
This was exciting! It was a right! I was finally allowed to work.
Then, that January, my dad sat me down at the dining room table and taught me to file my taxes. It was a huge moment for me-- I was part of things. I counted. I was becoming a grownup.
Of course, I got all my money back that first year, because I cleared less than 1500 dollars. But it didn’t matter. I had joined the work force. I was so proud!
Probably, you actually find this story heartwarming. Because I was a kid, and because I was industrious. Because technically, I wasn’t part of the 47% yet, since I wasn’t legal to vote.
But I’m curious to know when you think I became part of the 47%. When did I stop being an industrious kid, and become a drain on society?
Was it three years later, on my eighteenth birthday, as I was scooping ice cream at the Baskin Robbins? Because I was still sucking the public school system, but I got a full refund that year too.
Was it two years after that, when I was waiting tables in Tennessee at the age of twenty, and going to college full time, but didn’t have enough money to turn the heat on in my apartment? Because I didn’t pay income tax that year either, but got my health care and birth control through a public university, which was also helping to pay for my education.
Or maybe it was five years after that, when I was undeniably an adult, teaching college freshmen to write complete sentences for an $800/ month stipend. Because that year I got another full refund. Was that wrong of me?
When I think about it, I see that there is a record stretching back in time. An archive, a paper trail, of how little I’ve earned over the years. It wasn’t until I was 28 years old that I finally rose above the poverty line and cleared enough to truly pay my share. I’m not proud of this fact, exactly, but I’m not ashamed either. Because I contributed in a lot of ways, and I always worked. I worked hard.
The thing is— for all those years I was growing, becoming the adult I am now, who does pay a lot each year, and is delighted to do so. Tax me more! Tax me harder! Give me better schools and social programs, so that kids today can do as I did, have a chance to grow and learn and become grateful adults who appreciate the gifts they’ve been given, and in return give back.
But here is what I want to know: When does a child become an adult, and part of your 47%?
In 1938, we passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, and this was a radical statement. That some people were not supposed to contribute. They were only supposed to grow and develop, so that they might become productive fully-formed members of society later. When we made this law, we forever changed what it meant to be a child in the US. We created the contemporary definition of childhood. We established an arbitrary age at which they could contribute.
But the way we view our children changes, and I don’t think you’d send your 14 year old into a coal mine or a factory. We now have this crazy idea that the longer kids are allowed to learn and study and grow, the more they’ll be able to accomplish as adults, and the more fulfilled they’ll be. Most people with resources like yours, Mitt, expect their kids will go to college, and then to graduate school. They’ll do internships and study abroad. And for those years they are the 47%. YOUR KIDS are the 47%. Legal to vote and work and pay their share, but expected to take some time to grow first, and to falter on occasion. Because they’ll be better for it in the long run.
Our society evolves. We hope it gets better. Are you better than you were 4 years ago? I don’t know. But I can say this with confidence: You are absolutely better off than you were 104 years ago. And so are your kids! Because of taxes, education, government regulation, and yes—entitlements.
I’m so grateful for my poverty years, for my childhood, and for my entitlements. I look back at all those years of sucking the system. I think of the things I was able to do because of them—the volunteer hours, the emotional growth, the education gained the life-lessons learned. And I think to myself—yes, this is what is supposed to happen to people today. A grace period, a chance to struggle.
And now here is the truly radical thing I am going to suggest: periods of need and growth are not confined to childhood! We learn all our lives, and sometimes we require a window in our adult lives, to regroup, to recover, to learn something new. Are we drawing on society in those moments? Sure! And that’s fine, because we will be contributing again in a little while.
Who is to say when it’s time to learn something new? When your job kicks you out and you start a successful small business, but it takes a few years to get off the ground? Or when you go back to school and change careers in your fifties? When you get divorced and have to return to the workforce because the child support won’t cover the mortgage, but first you have to finish your student teaching? Or you retire from private practice early, so you can work at a public clinic?
There are so many periods of growth in each life. And this is one thing “entitlements” do. They allow for growth. Evolution. Forward movement. When there isn’t a trust fund to act as a safety net.
I hope I never get a full refund again in my working life, Mitt. I hope I’m done with that particular lesson. I’m not going to lie—I’d like to make more every year. Hell, I’d like to get rich like you! But if that plan doesn’t work out, and the day comes that I do have to file for a full refund again, I refuse to feel shame over it.
Life is unpredictable. All we can do is take what comes, and move forward with the confidence that our struggles offer valuable lessons. If we are lucky, we are allowed to learn them.
Thanks so much for listening.
Laurel Snyder is the author of three novels for children, “Penny Dreadful,” “Any Which Wall” and “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess” and two picture books, “Inside the Slidy Diner” and “Baxter the Kosher Pig.”
She's also published two books of poems, most recently “The Myth of the Simple Machines”. She also edited an anthology of nonfiction, “Half/Life: Jew-ish tales from Interfaith Homes”. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Michener-Engle Fellow, Laurel has published work in the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, but most of all, she is a mom.
For more info, go to laurelsnyder.com.
For more info, go to laurelsnyder.com.