Column: It’s time for billionaires to pay their fair share of taxes

July 19, 2021 5:16 am

A man wears a pin that reads “I’m Rich, I Can Afford To Pay My Taxes” during a Tax Day protest on April 15, 2017 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Imagine a world where we aren’t asked to choose between funding our schools and other crucial public services like fixing our roads and bridges, cleaning up our water and ensuring everyone has access to food, shelter, and health care. 

Imagine living in a country where our government at all levels works to ensure everyone’s needs are met and everyone, regardless of race, income level or ZIP code, is able to thrive. 

Together, we can move closer to that future — but we need everyone to pay their fair share in taxes. When everyone does not pay their fair share, most Americans suffer the consequences.

The past few decades have been tough for working people. As the cost of living continues to rise, wages have failed to keep pace, and working families in Michigan and across the country are left struggling to make ends meet. Despite these hardships, working people have continued to pay our fair share every single year. 

Meanwhile, some of the richest people in the world have paid zero dollars in federal income taxes.

Yes, you read that right. Files obtained by ProPublica show how in recent years, multi-billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg have managed to game the system to avoid paying federal income taxes on any of the billions of dollars they bring in annually. No, they’re not committing tax fraud — their actions are completely legal, because the system is designed to serve them.

It’s bad enough that the richest Americans have been able to make such astronomical fortunes, often by underpaying their workers. The fact that they don’t even pay their fair share on the money they bring in is unacceptable.

For example, Bezos alone has a net worth of $212 billion and brings in tens of billions of dollars a year. Between the years of 2014 and 2018, Bezos paid $973 million in federal income taxes on $4.22 billion in taxable income. Over the same period, his total wealth grew by $99 billion, meaning he paid an effective tax rate of just .98%. Even last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated working people across the country, Bezos’s wealth grew by $75 billion — and he has the audacity to brag about paying his workers $15 per hour.

Our unfair tax system has allowed those at the top to collect massive fortunes while working families struggle to get by. As of 2020, the top 1 percent of U.S. households owned more than 15 times more wealth than the entire bottom 50%, with a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion. This unjust system needs to change, for the good of communities in Michigan and across the country.

Increasing tax rates on the wealth and income of America’s richest citizens will benefit everyone. Instead of allowing the rich to continue getting richer while many working people are left behind, a more equitable tax system will give us more money to fund the programs our communities rely on and put money back in the pockets of working people.

With billionaires paying their fair share, we could move closer to fully and equitably funding our public schools. Schools would have more resources to better meet their students’ needs and work to set every kid up for success.

Fully funding our public schools could make smaller classes a possibility again, allow for properly funded special education programs, and ensure schools can provide needed classroom supplies instead of letting teachers pay out of pocket. It could allow schools to set themselves up as community hubs providing wraparound services to struggling kids and families, all while making sure every staff member, each of whom is crucial to the school’s success, is treated with dignity and paid a fair wage.

But the benefits wouldn’t stop with public education. By reframing our tax system and choosing to value everyone’s well-being instead of corporate profits, we could do a much better job at meeting our communities’ needs by repairing our infrastructure, investing in clean energy and green jobs, and strengthening the social safety net.

We live in the richest country in the world. Our communities shouldn’t have to go without needed resources while a handful of people continue to hoard massive amounts of wealth. We have the power to create a better future for working families. 

A fair tax system would be a significant step in that direction.


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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker was the president of AFT Michigan. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.