The racist origins of Alabama’s tax structure

The racist origins of Alabama’s tax structure

Like Louisiana, the state of Alabama has an upside-down tax structure that asks the most of those who have the least. One byproduct of that regressive system is that people who run afoul of the law – even for minor infractions – often end up saddled with exorbitant fines and fees that can quickly add up. Freelance journalist Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein, writing in The New York Times, explains the racist origins of this system and how it continues to punish people with low incomes. 

While almost every state in the country, both red and blue, levies fines and fees that fall disproportionately on the bottom rung of the income ladder, the situation in Alabama is far more dramatic, thanks to the peculiarities of its Constitution. Over a century ago, wealthy landowners and businessmen rewrote the Constitution to cap taxes permanently. As a result, today, Alabama has one of the cruelest tax systems in the country. … In most of the country, if residents of a school district or county want to raise taxes to pay for a new library or electrical systems, they are free to impose a new tax on themselves. Not so in Alabama. Its cities and counties do not have home rule, so they have to go through the State Legislature, which often has to initiate a constitutional amendment allowing them to pass a law. 

Alabama isn’t alone, of course. Louisiana’s tax structure is also notoriously regressive, and asks more from those who are poor and Black than those who are wealthy and white. 

Locking up kids at Angola
Louisiana’s juvenile justice system is on the verge of collapse – plagued by chronic escapes, poor facilities and decades-long failures by state agencies to follow through on promises of reform. Recently Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that some children being housed at the troubled Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish would be transferred to the maximum security adult prison at Angola, where they would be housed in a separate facility from adult offenders. The Advocate, in an editorial, is skeptical:

By any standard, there is an air of desperate improvisation in where to send the most disruptive youth offenders housed in Bridge City’s juvenile jail. And one improvisation that is getting the most skepticism is the redeployment of about two dozen to Angola, the sprawling maximum-security prison of legend. We agree with the critics on this one. The Louisiana State Penitentiary is not where juvenile offenders ought to be, certainly not for very long. … This is no easy problem to solve. We can give Edwards and state officials the benefit of every doubt because of the challenges of turning around the troubled lives of teens. But are there no other options? 

Gun bill expands Medicaid
The recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, prompted Congress, for the first time in a generation, to pass a modest firearms reform bill. While the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act doesn’t do much to keep high-powered weaponry from the hands of American teens, it does include significant expansions of the country’s fragile mental health infrastructure. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, writing for The New Republic, explains:

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act has been framed as a gun reform, but perhaps a more fitting frame for the law is as the biggest single expansion of mental health care in American history—and the biggest expansion of Medicaid—with a few gun provisions. … (T)he new law leverages Medicaid to vastly expand America’s mental health infrastructure through a system of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, or CCBHCs, and school mental health investments. The law’s massive investment in mental health care didn’t just happen over the course of a few weeks. It was the product of nearly a decade of slow, methodical planning. 

Improving reading scores
Research is clear that children who don’t become proficient readers by the end of third grade face daunting odds later in life, as they are less likely to graduate from high school and lead productive lives. In recent years, neighboring Mississippi has made significant strides in improving reading scores, and required students to pass a test showing they can read before being promoted to fourth grade. The inimitable Jim Beam, of the Lake Charles American Press, laments the failure of a bill in the Louisiana Legislature that sought to replicate some of the Magnolia State’s successful blueprint: 

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, sponsored the reading bill that would have prohibited promotion to the fourth grade of students whose reading deficiencies weren’t corrected by the end of the third grade. The legislation passed the House 84-12 but failed 18-14 in the Senate, two votes short of a majority. The House voted 86-12 to reconsider the bill, but the Senate refused to do it on the last legislative day. … A 2013 Mississippi law requires third graders to pass a reading assessment, and they are given three tries in order to qualify for promotion to the fourth grade. Mississippi finished first in the nation for gains on the national report card, with fourth-grade children making the biggest improvement in reading and math between 2017 and 2019.

Number of the Day
25% – Percentage of young adults, aged 25-34, who are living in a multigenerational household (usually with a parent). That’s up from just 9% in 1971 (Source: Pew Research Center)