Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson: A simple fix for low-income families burdened by tax reform

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Utah's individual income tax return form.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s report on a state tax reform proposal, awarding 40 percent of the total tax cut to those who need relief the least, caused me great concern for the hundreds of families who are served each week by the food pantry operated by Granger Community Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where I serve as a pastor.

There are many families in our community struggling to balance rapidly rising housing costs while working multiple low-wage, part-time jobs. Increasing the costs for food will disproportionately impact families presently living paycheck-to-paycheck to maintain house and home. These families are on the edge of family stability, a cold/flu, a flat tire or other minor car repair, can make the difference in paying each month’s rent. They do not need our tax system to be changed so that they pay more for groceries every month while their landlord and employers pay less total taxes every year.

I would like to propose a simple change to the tax proposal that would make it simpler and fairer for struggling families. Two years ago, the Utah House of Representatives passed HB 148, which eliminated the state portion of the sales tax on unprepared food and paid for that cut by increasing the tax on nonfood items by 0.22%. This bill would benefit most Utah families because the sales tax reduction on food was eight times bigger than the increase to tax on nonfood items and most families spend much more money on food than on nonfood items that are subject to sales tax.

HB 148 would have especially benefited the families served by my church’s food pantry. An analysis from the United State Department of Agriculture shows that low-income families spend 35.1% of their monthly income on food, while families in the top 20%, in terms of income, spend only 8.2% of their income on food. A tax on groceries impacts over a third of all the money a low-income family has to live on, but less than 10% of the income of more affluent families.

I would like to invite the sponsors of the tax reform proposals to come to the food pantry at Granger Community Christian Church and talk to the families we serve about what it is like to struggle paycheck to paycheck just to keep your kids in a home.

Unfortunately, HB 148 did not pass in the Senate, and the leaders of a legislative task force are proposing a bill that would double the sales tax on food. The sponsors of the bill try to offset the harm this increase would cause low-income families by creating an annual food tax rebate. A tax rebate next year may seem reasonable “on paper,” but the daily reality for low-income and fixed-income families, is a rebate will not repair the harm done to families by this tax increase.

It would be so much better for low-income families if the grocery tax ideas in the task force bill were replaced by the ideas in HB 148. Giving families a break on taxes charged at the grocery store would put money back in their pockets each week. That money might be enough to pay for other household needs, like soap, tissue, or detergent. A family might save the money for a week and use it to pay the last part of the electric bill or transportation costs.

That would be so much better than taking more money out of the pockets of struggling families now and then trying to undo the damage next year at tax time.

Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson

The Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson is pastor of the Granger Community Christian Church.