Jack is a volunteer at the CCNY Archives. Before retiring, he worked at IBM for over 28 years. His articles have over 120,000 views.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created huge disruptions in our life both economic and social. This new idea came to me recently in my many discussions with a colleague about our various interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable from the New Testament. I hope you will consider it and give me some feedback.
- Sept. 2020
The Great Debate
The great debate between liberals and conservatives has been about the size of government. In specific, liberals wants more government programs to help the poor and to level the playing field. Conservatives wants less government intrusion and prefer private charities and individuals helping others in need.
Over the last 60 years, we have expanded these programs tremendously and with great costs to the tax payers and yet we have little to show for it. The poverty rate is still sitting between12%-14%. Not much lower than the poverty rate back in 1970s.
Perhaps, it is time for a new direction. My proposal came about during the COVID-19 shut down. We saw how many businesses large and small were affected and the government trying to do the right thing by giving out money to people to help them through this rough period. The PPP program was designed to help businesses retain their employees. The stimulus package included a payout of $1200 per individual who filed an income tax the prior year.
The problem with these programs were it may not be going to the people who needs it. In my own case, my wife and I each received the $1200 but she was still working from home and I am retired. Because we filed a joint income tax return, and our income level fall within the range, we qualified for the subsidies. If it happened to us, my guess is, it probably happen to quite a few other people.
A Better Solution...
I call my proposal the "good Samaritan tax cut". The idea is simple. Why not give every taxpayer a "tax cut" of $1000 and with the stipulation that it be used to help someone or some business or organization in need.
I called this the Good Samaritan for a good reason. If you know the parable from the New Testament, Jesus told the story of a Samaritan man traveling on a road and came across a person that was robbed and beaten on the side of the road. He stopped and cared for this person and took him to a nearby inn and paid the owner of the inn some amount of money to care for this person...
The idea Jesus was trying to teach us is we should help our neighbors and fellow man who are in need. In this case, even a stranger we happen to come across in our travels. It is our responsibility and not someone else or the government.
My idea is rather than the government taxing us and redistributing it to the people in need, we the people should be given the choice. This refund, would allow each of us to decide who or what we want to help in our own neighborhood or our circle of influence. The theory being we would have a better gage of where the need is the most dire. A federal government, located in DC would not know what the needs are in my community, and even if they did, they would take too long and the process would be too cumbersome and full of bureaucratic tape to help.
In the example of the $1200 given to me as a result of the stimulus, I was able to use this fund to help my church, my alumni organization and my fencing club and a group that helps women in Chinatown NYC and a non-profit that focus on helping people with disability to live independent lives. Each of these organizations, all non-profits, have been affected by the shut down and the self quarantine which lasted for over four months.
It is because of my unique position in my community and being on the board of some of these organizations and being an Asian that I know the financials distress of each of them. By making a donation to them, we all benefited from this transaction. I felt good that I was in a position to help, while these organizations got funds that came to them without any fanfare. There was no middle person involved. No bureaucracy, and no abuses or fraud. It was a free choice made by someone who cared.
Free To Choose...
It was Milton Friedman, the Nobel winning economist, who wrote the book "Free to Choose" back in 1980. In it, he makes the case why capitalism and the free enterprise system is the most efficient way to conduct commerce. He calls it the "hidden hand" of the market that is best at determining price and wages and production and supply.
It is the natural way of how each individual in the conduct of their daily lives make choices that benefit himself that leads to an efficient and productive market. No government entity, no matter how smart, can do better.
This same principle of freedom, applies equally to charity and helping others.
What About Greed?
Wait a minute, all sounds great in theory but what about in reality? What if someone decides to keep the money for himself?
Milton Friedman addressed this topic of greed in his book as well. Check out the link below where he explains capitalism. Watch the 2 minutes interview he did with Phil Donahue.
Yes there may be greed on the part of some. If we give them some money in the form of a tax cut, money which belongs to them in the first place, what is wrong with them keeping it? and spending it?
Does the government have a crystal ball and allow them to spend that money more wisely than an individual?
What's The Harm?
For my progressive colleagues, the mere mention of any tax cut is a sign of the plaque. They want nothing to do with it. If anything, they want more taxes of the rich to pay for more social programs. This tax cut is unlike any other tax cut. Think of it as a social experiment. It is a novel way to help people. Instead of government spending it, let the people decide where to spend it, or donate it or keep it.
In fact I would go one step further. Why not have an option to pay down the National debt. Since our Congress does not seem to have the will to live within its means, why not let the people decide? Some may choose to take this tax cut and use it to pay off Uncle Sam's debt. We now owe $26.7 trillion. A reduction of even 1% will erode the debt in a matter of decades.
So I ask, what is the harm of giving this plan a chance?
The Silver Lining
One benefit that may be overlooked is a change in our society back to the time where we are more aware of our neighbors. Recently, I volunteered to work as a census enumerator. For the last month and a half, I have been going door to door knocking on doors and speaking to my neighbors. One of the tactics we use is called a proxy. If we go to a door and no one is home, we leave them a notice of visit. After three visits without a contact, we are instructed to seek out a proxy. Usually, it is a neighbor who may know who lives in the house or apartment.
My experience being an enumerator has open my eyes to what is going on in our society. Most people don't even know their next door neighbors. I have contacted dozens of proxies and most are not very helpful. The simple reason is they don't know their neighbors. They hardly interact with them or even know their names. All we are asking is how many people live in a particular house and most can't even tell for sure.
A silver lining or side benefit of a "good Samaritan" tax cut may just get people to be more aware of their neighbors. Perhaps an elderly couple next door could use some help shoveling snow off their driveway. A good Samaritan does not always have to give monetary assistance. They can help with their time and services.
This COVID-19 virus may have created some disruptions in our lives. It may also create some opportunities for us to try some new ideas. The idea of helping others in need as the Bible tells us.
When I go to a restaurant these days, I can't help but add a little extra to the tip. I know how hard it is for these restaurants to stay in business and make a profit under restrictions imposed by the city. Some groceries stores are paying their employees extra for doing their job. Putting their lives at risk being on the front lines as one of the "essential" workers along with Dr. and nurses and first responders.
I think this tragedy has made all of us more aware. Recognizing we are all together fighting this deadly disease and keeping it in check with social distancing and the medical researchers looking for a vaccine that will free us from this burden.
We can all be "good Samaritans" and help our fellow man and they in turn may pay it forward. Good deeds beget more good deeds. The ancient philosophy of the east of karma may also be in play.
I feel there is more I can add from my recent experience as a census enumerator. Let me outline the few things I gleamed over these past 8 weeks. I have contacted over 500 of my neighbors.
The conclusion I come away with are the following:
1, People in general do not know or speak to their immediate neighbors.
2. Some people are very busy and self-centered. When asked about taking a census, which takes only 10 minutes, they refuse because their time is worth more than my time.
3. Some people don't know what the census is about and why it is important to count the number of people living in our community. Their civics is lacking.
4. A few are outright hostile. They think I am being nosy and even with my official government issued ID, they refuse to believe who I am and why I am at their door.
5. Finally, this is the one that gets me. A few are so "entitled" and self absorbed, that they think they know everything and they tell me - "I know about the Census...I was a teacher...and I already did ours online months ago...why are you wasting my time at my door?" I had to explain calmly that we are here to count heads by addresses at a residence. In this particular case, this family owned two houses and one in Fl. They were counted in their other address since they lived there on April 1. April 1 is the day we count people, it is a snapshot. I explained that we come to enumerate people that might be living in this address, either because it was rented or some relatives were staying there...whatever. The government does not know what the detail situation of each household. That is why they send enumerators door to door. In this case, by answering a few simple question, we would have resolved the case. Instead, she spent more time complaining rather than just answer the question and let me go my way.
There you have a snapshot of our community in 2020. Don't get me wrong, for the most part, over 80% of the people I contacted are nice and cooperative and helpful. Many even thanked me for doing this work because they know how important it is.
The other 20% are the ones that stand out in my mind. It is a blessing that we only do this every ten years.
One more nugget of information. While being a census enumerator, I volunteered because of my language skills. I speak Mandarin fluently. You would think they would allocate cases by language needs. In one case, I went to a family that are recent Chinese immigrants. I see from the case notes history, it was contacted 8 times before. The note clearly stated that there was a language difficulty. They even identified that Mandarin was the language they speak. I was able to inform the household member in Mandarin what I was there for. We completed the interview and the case was closed. I called my supervisor afterwards and asked why it took so long before the case was assigned to me? He admitted the system is not perfect. In theory, once it was determined there was a language barrier, it was suppose to be assigned to the enumerator with that specific language skill. In practice, it took 8 tries.
This just go to show, in a small way, that government agencies are just not good at doing somethings efficiently. The simple answer is no one cared enough to fix it.
To the people working there, it is just a job. There is no incentive to do any better,
Some Related Info
- What is American Exceptionalism?
A misunderstood terminology of American Exceptionalism.
- Milton Friedman Explains Greed - Business Insider
- Paycheck Protection Program
An SBA loan that helps businesses keep their workforce employed during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Jack Lee
Jack Lee (author) from Yorktown NY on September 22, 2020:
Marie, Thanks for that story and your kind words. We could all use some good news post this pandemic. Just to let you know, my group of team members number about 20 from the 1970s have recently got together on zoom to celebrate one of our member's birthday. We also found out one member and his wife are COVID-19 survivors. They are still dealing with some health issues in the aftermath. They are both retired and have relocated to Puerto Rico when their family originated. One of our other member, out of the blue, decided to organize a group housewarming gift. We are raising funds to help them build a storage shed in their back yard. They have downsized quite a bit and could use the space. Good luck with your efforts in your neighborhood. Please keep us posted on your progress.
Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on September 22, 2020:
This is well presented, Jack.
I have my own reality. One is that I live well below the poverty line, and I'm happy with that. I do experience pressure, though, from time to time because market prices are set by big banks, real estate appraisers, and the like. The whole system is one big mess.
I don't know if I've been counted in the census; hopefully, my brother did that while I was in Michigan (I moved in July).
I believe that the energy is changing on the planet. Because of COVID-19, we are slowed down to the point where we're asking ourselves, "What can I do?"
Well, with my background, I have a momentum on gardening. So, here I am in this concrete-based circle with rules that don't fit my interests. Instead of complaining, I have explored a woodsy area across the street that expands from one part of the complex to the other. There's a lot of trash in it. I've picked up four 13-gallon bags so far, including an expired fire extinguisher. Tires are in the offing.
My goal is to have a nature path for the community to enjoy. I put out letters yesterday, all handwritten, with my intent. I only know two neighbors from when I lived here five years ago. I addressed and mailed letters to the other nine on my circle with "My Neighbor(s)" and introduced myself in the letter.
I think there is an unseen force that inspires and guides each of us. For those who seem unresponsive, I think of Milton's line, "They also serve who only stand and wait."
You are opening minds and hearts with this article, Jack. Keep up the good work as you are inspired to do!
Jack Lee (author) from Yorktown NY on September 21, 2020:
Eric, She is correct. This stimulus was done in a rush and I get that trying to get it out to people as quickly as possible. But it also end up giving checks to many who do not need it.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 21, 2020:
Fascinating insights. My wife the tax professional just keeps remarking that the folks on disability and welfare and retired people probably should not have received the 1200. The money should have gone all to business and middle income who have been hit hard due to non "fixed incomes".