About 15 years ago, I got a part-time seasonal job completing tax returns for H&R Block. For all I’d learned taking 10 different courses in accounting in pursuit of my degree, I was not prepared for that job. Besides the fact that I didn’t realize that people living below the poverty line received such hefty income tax refunds, I was inexplicably unaware that so many people, particularly Black people since I worked in an office that nearly exclusively served Black people, were working 40 hours a week and earning so little.
It was not uncommon, even back then, to see refunds of $4500 or more for people with two or three children. It was also not uncommon to learn that the same people worked in minimum wage jobs five or more days a week and still earned $15,000 or less. And it was at the same job I learned how easily I, the same person who took that job working an additional 20 hours a week because the full-time job I had didn’t pay me enough to cover all my bills and save, could be turned into an elitist doing the bidding of capitalists in judging the poor people who make them rich.
In my 21-year-old mind, it was ridiculous that these people who were already receiving government subsidies for healthcare, housing and food, would also be given thousands of dollars in free money, my money, because they decided to have children. And watching these same people frivolously spend money on flat screen TVs, Jordans and whatever other material items they’d spent the last few months lusting over did not help. Why the fuck were these people getting a windfall, which they wasted, while I took on an extra job to save money for a new car? Where was my reward for working full-time and part-time and being responsible enough not to have children I could not afford?
I kept that attitude for years after I left that job, eagerly recounting the stories of clients who received huge tax refunds for having a “bunch of kids” and blew through the money buying a bunch of electronics, clothes and shoes they didn’t need and wouldn’t last whenever conversations among people who made just enough not to qualify for government subsidies gathered and lambasted those who get so much for doing nothing. It was comforting because it gave me someone to direct my anger at because pushing back against the forces keeping me and them poor wasn’t an option. I picked the easy fight and it didn’t matter if I won or not because that shit felt good.
And that misguided anger sustained me for several more years until I took out my anti-Black elitist suitcase and started unpacking. When I started dealing with all my own brainwashing and conditioning, I realized that whether it was my bonus or their tax refund, we were both putting in to this corrupt ass system and being giving what appeared to be a windfall, but was really just to keep us pacified with our place on the bottom rung of the capitalist ladder. And I realized my rants about how they should at least use that money for a college fund for their kids or save it for a rainy day was short-sighted, out of line and unrealistic.
Let’s just mind our fucking business about what other people do with their money.
Mind your business the same way you do when you see poor children at your kids’ school who need a coat. Mind your business the same way you do when you see a child with holes in their shoes. Mind your business the same way you do when you see when you ignore emails from St. Jude or your local food bank asking for donations to continue their charitable work. Mind your business the way you do when you have the opportunity to help those in need.
Or, if you really want to let some freeloaders know about what they should do with all that free money, you could roll up into Walmart and raise hell about how each of their super centers costs taxpayers on average roughly $1 million in public subsidies since they refuse to pay a livable wage to the workers who sell those flat screen TVs to the poor folks shouldn’t be buying with their refunds. Or you could write to your local lawmakers and demand they stop cutting deals that give corporations exorbitant tax breaks in exchange for creating jobs that never materialize. Or perhaps you could join some of these grassroots campaigns fighting to give low wage workers adequate pay. But all of those actions would require you to take on the hard fights and not the easy targets.
If you’re still stuck on the idea that people who make $20K a year can somehow climb out of poverty and needing subsidies by simply saving their $8K refunds, then the problem isn’t so much your elitism as it is your fundamental misunderstanding of how poverty works. You cannot save your way out of poverty. Poverty is created by resource hoarders. So unless those who take the biggest slices of the pie while brushing down their crumbs for those who bake the pies to fight over start taking in less, poverty will persist.
Now there is certainly something to be said for teaching Black folks financial literacy, but without the finances to be literate, it’s all theoretical. You can teach a squirrel all about preserving his acorns, but if the acorns ain’t growing on their tree, it’s just knowledge that can’t have practical use. And your moral judgments of poorest among us as if they’re poor because of hyper consumption don’t hold water when people who make $100K living in a house with more bedrooms than they need, two plus cars and a TV in every room aren’t being lectured about consumerism and living above their means.
But really, let’s be honest that the root of this all is that we don’t think poor folks should be entitled to any joys. Those who are barely holding their heads above water need somebody gasping for air under water to look down on. And if a mother of three working at Target can use her tax refund to get her children he same console as an office manager making too much to get a hefty return buys her kids for Christmas, then poverty doesn’t have the aesthetic we need to feel like we’re better than she is. We need poor people to act and look poor at all times to bolster our belief that they earned their place just below us.
So please, this tax season and all others, mind your fucking business about what people do with their refunds — unless they owe you coin in which case, pull up. After all, you ain’t stopping nobody from getting their iPhone or paying for their trip to Miami. And you ain’t gonna be about the work that needs to be done to demand change at the top.