By Chris Gagnon
As Occupy groups across the world celebrate their anniversaries and the movement enters its second year, it has only just begun in East Providence.
This past summer, a small group of socially conscious people met and discussed the Occupy movement and how it pertained to East Providence. On October 2nd, they had prepared a speech and introduced a non-binding resolution to the East Providence City Council, asking their elected officials to support amending the Constitution to state explicitly that corporations are not people and that money is not free speech and to advocate overturning the Supreme Court case Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission. The idea for an Occupy East Providence came out of my own belief that organizing at the local level and working in the realm of local politics was as much needed as are the big city occupations, such as Occupy Providence or Occupy Wall Street, campaigning on state, national, or international issues. Smaller Occupations can connect national politics to the local level and illustrate that what happens on Capitol Hill is affecting the people of East Providence.
Since presenting the non-binding resolution addressing the concept of corporate personhood to the city council, Occupy East Providence has taken on a campaign to make the connection between the national political atmosphere, the one that believes corporations are people and money is free speech, and the undemocratic budget commission that controls the City of East Providence’s finances. It is easy to attend a city council meeting and lose faith in our elected officials (as we Townies know all too well). The process drags on for hours and nothing real seems to be accomplished. But is it due to the alleged failings of our councilpersons that the city is on the verge of bankruptcy and that the state has mandated an unelected budget commission to take charge of the city’s funds? At the Weaver Library on Saturday, October 6th, Occupy East Providence invited residents to share their feelings in an attempt to answer that very question. To spark the discussion, our own Patricia Fontes delivered a speech on how the national attitude toward taxes and federal tax policy has brought this country, and East Providence, to where it is today.
Pat presented a chart which showed the top marginal tax rates between 1937 and 2011, stating that “My birth date, December of 1936, coincided with the introduction of highly progressive income taxation, 79% of taxable income above $215,400. All through my childhood and the period of my public education (through 1953), on into the years when I taught in public schools (1957-59), that top rate rose into the 90%s, typically on taxable incomes over either $200,000 or $400,000. Between 1972 and 1986, the federal government had enough tax revenue to share with state and local governments (revenue sharing). Neither as a school pupil nor as a teacher did the schools I was in have to have candy sales or bake sales to raise money; no one had to pay to participate in school sports. East Providence supported four public libraries, and the tuitions at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island were next-to-nothing”.
She lamented the fact that “so many Tea Party types of my age and even much younger (anyone born up through 1942 shared my experience, and even people born up to 1963 shared at least some of the progressive taxation years, 90%s until 1963, 70%s until 1981, and 60% until 1986) are so eager to make sure that the next generations will not share their good fortune.”
“The wealthy who had to pay taxes at those high rates during my childhood and youth did pay them and did keep on doing whatever it was they did to earn the incomes in those high brackets. They didn’t stop working and earning because the part of their income greater than $400,000 (after all the usual deductions and the lower tax rate brackets) was taxed at 90%. Or, if they did, as I think back now, so much the better. That left economic space for others to work and to invest. All of those highest tax rate payers from 1942 through 1963 have probably died by now. Were they some kind of genetic mutants? If greed is human nature and virtuous, as the free market proponents would have us believe, was that group inhuman? No. The socio-cultural and the political milieu supported their tax-paying as desirable and virtuous, and so they paid, more or less willingly.”
Her speech exemplified how drastically the national conversation regarding taxes has changed during her lifetime, especially pertaining to the wealthy. It also made clear the effects that drastically lowered taxes are having on everyone else. These budget constraints did not come out of the blue, they were not created overnight. Cities like my own hometown of East Providence as well as Central Falls are seeing some of the more horrific results of a tax policy that allows the wealthiest to get away with paying next to nothing.