So what does ability to pay really mean? We hear this discussed by political pundits and local officials but few really understand what this means. Likewise the “I’m on a fixed” budget argument pops up a lot, and it is hard to understand what this really means.
The ability to pay concept was developed many years ago by political scientists and economists looking at the allocation of costs to consumers for government services. Property taxes are a logical place to start – higher value homes have more potential for loss, so their taxes were more (the percent was the same but because of their value the amount was higher). For income taxes, those with higher incomes we deemed to have more disposable income and again more to lose, so the rates increased as income rose (we forget that until 1963 the highest income tax rate was 90%, and the economy was growing quickly!). People with lower incomes had little disposable income because all their money went to food and housing. Today the issue of affordability arises with water, sewer, taxes and storm water fees, as well as federal and state taxes. The SRF and bonding agencies often look at 3.5% or 4.5% and the maximum water or water/wastewater cost as a percent of income, but few utilities charge this much. Few water and sewer utilities (combined) approach the cost for power per household, let along the cost of cable or cell phone use for all but the cheapest carriers. Certainly water, sewer and storm water are essential service, but not so much cable, although there are those who will argue the point. So somehow the ability to pay issue does not apply to private sector services, but does to essential services, especially when we all know we do not collect enough money to cover significant infrastructure needs on those public works systems? That just does not make logical sense except in the political world.
Likewise the “fixed income” argument is often applied in tandem. Fixed income is generally applied to retirees, but let’s not forget that 10% of those in poverty are retirees, but 18% of millionaires are over 65. But don’t most people have a fixed income – their income is fixed by their employer. They can change jobs but the argument that younger folks should change jobs if they want to earn more is like telling retirees to go back to work. There is only so much we can do and only so much income to be earned because few control their income.
So on both counts, the ability to pay argument seems like an argument created to keep public service costs down and prevent the full cost application to many. The squeaky wheel gets coddled, at the expense of society. Somehow that is not fairness, and subjects us all to unnecessary risks. The question is who is going to be the person/group to stand up and say enough?