Monday, December 7, 2009

A bargain amidst economic chaos

Published April 2009 in Salem Monthly

It's incredibly hard to put a price on a dose of courage, but it can come with a shockingly cheap price tag.

Last year, I had the good fortune to befriend a woman who knows firsthand the toil of being one of the working poor. At the age of 36, and as a single mother of four daughters, she decided to return to school while continuing to work part time.

Making ends meet in such difficult circumstances wasn't ever easy, but she did it, and she received assistance in small ways - like tax breaks.

I was one of many who scoffed at the notion of the Obama administration's seemingly paltry tax break of $10-15 per paycheck. It doesn't seem that such a minuscule amount could possibly make any tangible difference. Until I understood it translates into courage.

One of the tax breaks that impacted the working mother was the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC. Low-income families can apply for the credit on both federal and state tax forms. One in seven households in Oregon currently benefit from the credit, according to figures from the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

Oregon is one of only about two dozen states to offer the credit at the state level, but under the current calculations, the lowest-wage workers are still paying a higher tax rate than the highest-paid workers.

A bill under consideration in the state legislature would increase the state EITC amount. Oregon's current EITC configuration only amounts to about $85 for the average recipient, which is too small to offset the taxes low-income families pay on a regular basis. If passed, the new bill would increase the credit to about $480 for a family of four living at or below federal poverty levels. That's money than can reduce child poverty and increase the incentive to work for families struggling to make ends meet.

But it doesn't seem like enough.

Such a small amount of money seems laughable by most measures, but there are no scales accurate enough to weigh its worth. Anyone who has ever struggled is looking for an excuse, an excuse for not accepting the hand up, an excuse to give up trying. The antidote is courage.

For my friend, that small amount of money ended up as a letterman's jacket, a prom dress and extra money for a pizza when one of her daughters' teams won a softball game. Providing those small treats for her family gave her courage. Courage to try one more day. Courage to stick with school. Courage to tackle the difficult task of middle school principal. Courage to run for state legislature, where she's fighting to move the mountain and assist families that are struggling as she did two decades ago.

Her name is Betty Komp.

Money is a valuable thing, even in small amounts, and especially during these times. Courage, on the other hand, is a bargain at any price.

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