The syntax of sin tax
Mayor Jim Kenney has announced that he will be proposing a soda tax to fund costly city projects including an overhaul of the city’s parks and recreation centers. The tax which would add 3¢ per ounce (making the tax on an 8 oz. can 24¢ and a 16-oz. bottle 48¢) is what is commonly known as a “sin tax.”
Sin taxes are often levied items that are legal, but considered harmful or undesirable — cigarettes, candies, alcohol, fast food, etc. — and rationalized not only by the revenue stream they create but by the well-being they purportedly promote by making it more difficult and more expensive to continue consuming those products. Unfortunately, sin taxes have a disproportionate impact on lower-income and poor people. This is simple math — the more things cost, the less your limited income will buy — though it is rarely framed that way.
The syntax of sin taxes — that is, the connected system and arrangement of the elements involved — is one that seems to aim to make prohibitive, or to preclude altogether, any small pleasures in the lives of the working poor and those who receive SNAP benefits. It is too often part and parcel of a punitively paternalistic way we deal with the poor. Consider: Wisconsin just passed a bill to prohibit food stamp recipients from buying shellfish, any potatoes other than white ones, and ketchup. In Missouri, shellfish is again prohibited, as are cookies, chips or cuts of meat designated steaks and, yes, sodas.
Often we justify sin taxes by the good imposing them will do — i.e., curtailing soda or fast food consumption in those with the highest rates of obesity will result in better overall health. But, despite the fact that 40 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are white, the face of poverty in America is most often portrayed as black or brown, and there is both implicit racism and real aggression in the determination of what “sins” we societally punish, and which we don’t (think of the tax abatements we give to gentrifiers, or the tax break to fracking interests).
This soda “sin tax” moreover, stands to jeopardize actual jobs at bottling plants in Council District 7 (see Max Marin’s article about the soda tax for more on this), one of the poorest councilmanic districts.
Ultimately, while the benefits of increased revenue from a soda tax may be tempting for the city, we have to ask ourselves who we are asking to bear its impact. If it is the 26 percent of Philadelphians who already live in poverty, its cost is much too high.