Laura (not her real name) came in to Tabitha's Way Food Pantry in American Fork with two of her older children where I have been volunteering since it opened last August. As I did her intake interview, she shared with me that her husband was an Iraqi war veteran suffering from PTSD and unable to work. Even though he had been diagnosed as disabled by multiple physicians, the federal government was balking at allowing him to get disability pay, so they had hired an attorney with already stretched funds. Laura had a job but with five children at home, there was just more month than money.
Holly Richardson: Adding sales tax on food will leave some Utah families hungry
She and her family are "food insecure."
According to the Utah Food Bank, there are 423,000 Utahns who are food insecure, meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from and the "quality, variety or desirability" of their diet is reduced. Forty percent of those who have visited one of Utah's charitable food programs are above the poverty line.
These are the working poor. At Tabitha's Way, we have worked with licensed professionals - teachers, nurses and nurses' aides, cosmetologists, people holding down two or three part-time jobs, grandparents unexpectedly raising grandchildren and many more. Sixty percent have had to choose between paying for food and paying for housing. Seventy-one percent have had to choose between medical care and food or between transportation and food.
One thing they do not need to see is their precious grocery dollars pinched even further because the Utah legislature decides to raise the tax on food.
In 2006, Utah cut the tax on groceries from 4.7 percent to 1.75 percent. It seems that almost immediately thereafter, legislators started talking about putting it back on. The argument I usually hear is two-fold: it's a stable source of income to the state because everybody has to eat and the legislature will make it "revenue-neutral" so it doesn't look like taxes were raised. This year, it's straight-out a "revenue enhancement" or a tax increase called by another name.
Here's the deal. It is only revenue-neutral to the state. It is not revenue neutral to people.
Adding the tax back on food is regressive, meaning there is an inverse relationship between the tax rate and the taxable income. Clearly, the food tax negatively impacts families at the lower end of the income scale because — as is frequently noted — everyone needs to eat. An increase in the food tax balances the budget on the backs of Utah's working poor. The Legislature needs to look for others options.
Arguing that there are food stamp programs doesn't help families like Laura's who don't qualify for food stamps. Nor does the promise of a small tax credit once a year. Money in their pocket now is better than a small check later. These taxes can easily amount to hundreds of dollars a year. The ability to have meat with dinner once in the spring because of a small tax credit hardly makes up for scrimping the rest of the year.
A 2016 study looked at the relationship between raising the tax on food and food insecurity. Its authors noted that "states that tax food need to understand that this policy is increasing food insecurity among its poorer residents that do not participate in SNAP," the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
To those who make the argument that the tax is too low to be noticed: Perhaps you've never noticed it because you've never had to shop for groceries with a calculator in hand, knowing that every penny counted.
Before the Utah Legislature decides to increase the food tax, I highly recommend that every legislator spend some time volunteering in a charitable food organization — not just taking a tour — and get to know the people that decision will most affect. It's the least they can do.
Holly Richardson is a former state legislator who opposed increasing the tax on food while she was in the Legislature and every year since.
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