Kevin Mass: Food tax isn’t a math problem. It’s a moral problem.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A slide is projected illustrating the main topics brought up by the public as the tax reform task force holds its first meeting at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, after a statewide listening tour to gather input on changes to the tax code and other options for addressing the state's reported budgetary challenges.

Going into the holiday season, the Utah Legislature has a gift for Utahns. An increase in their grocery bill. An increase many households can’t afford and will likely result in more food insecurity.

Households with children, seniors and people with disabilities are the most vulnerable to food insecurity. Food insecurity reduces a child’s ability to learn, compromises the health of seniors and compromises housing stability.

Utah’s food insecurity rate has been moving in the right direction. In 2012 the USDA reported that almost 1 in 7, or 14.8% of Utah households — over 137,000 families — couldn’t afford enough food. As of September 2019, we’ve brought that down to 1 in 10 Utah households, or 9.8%. We should be working to help the over 102,000 households that still experience food insecurity. Instead the Legislature has a plan to make it worse.

Research shows that the sales taxes on food increase food insecurity. A 2016 study by Auburn University found that a 1% increase in the grocery tax increases the probability of households being food insecure by 0.6%. The study showed that households in rural communities, young households, and households with children will be especially hard hit.

Taxing groceries is regressive, it impacts low-income families disproportionally. Low-income families spend 34.1% of their income on food, while middle income families spend 13.4% of their income on food.

Utahns agree: In February 2019, Y2 Analytics conducted a poll on the sales tax on food and found that 67% of Utahns opposed it. Seven months later, after the Legislative Taskforce toured Utah, Y2 did another poll, rephrased the question and found public perception hasn’t moved: 66% of Utahns still oppose increasing the sales tax on food, even with some kind of tax credit for low-income households. In the last 15 years, no poll has ever dipped below 60% of Utahns opposing the sales tax on food.

The Legislature plans to mitigate the negative impact of a food tax with a Grocery Tax Credit. This is a flawed solution because outreach efforts to educate the public, the added red tape and those who don’t file for a variety of reasons never get the credit.

There is also no guarantee the Grocery Tax Credit program will remain in place. Credits like these are often the first to go during an economic downtown, leaving struggling families all the worse off in trying to pay rent, utilities, and other basic necessities.

Over the last 40 years, states have moved away from taxing groceries. Utah is one of only 13 states that tax food. Of those 13, four have a grocery tax credit. In states where credits exist, there is pressure to eliminate the credits and remove the tax on food.

Legislators say that sales tax on food is a stable tax source because everyone buys food regardless of their economic situation or recessions. This simply isn’t true. If a worker has variable hours in a low-wage job, a consistent monthly income is anything but guaranteed. With fixed costs such as rent, car payments and childcare, the family food budget is usually the first to shrink when money is tight.

Yes, people have to eat but you cannot spend money you don’t have.

To Utahns, the sales tax on food is not a math problem. It is a moral problem.

Kevin Mass

Kevin Mass is the board chair for Utahns Against Hunger and is an architect at a local firm.

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