America's Tax Day: It Hasn't Always Been This Way 100 Years Ago, There Was No US Income Tax. Then Again, America Was A

By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 1999 | Go to article overview

America's Tax Day: It Hasn't Always Been This Way 100 Years Ago, There Was No US Income Tax. Then Again, America Was A


Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As the last April of the 1900s nears its midpoint, it may be a good time for Americans to reflect upon the most effective means of social and economic change their national government has created in the past century.

No, not special prosecutors.

The income tax. Before the US began skimming from the cash, its citizens took home the government was small enough to be run by a tariff on such things as boots. Now it's so big that at times it seems to need all of everyone's money. Before the income tax Washington was so small dogs could sleep on Pennsylvania Avenue. Now its so big that you can't even get to Pennsylvania Avenue - it's blocked off to protect the White House from terrorists and, presumably, beavers like those just caught eating cherry trees down by the Tidal Basin. The income tax encourages you to buy a house, to have kids, to contribute to politics. It's always been complicated - Abe Lincoln made a mistake on his (true story). And it's due. Today. This year the Internal Revenue Service expects to receive 126.1 million income tax returns from individuals. Some 25 percent of these will be filed electronically, predicts the IRS. They have no word on whether that's because Bill Gates has so much money he has to file 31 million times. If past years are any guide, the largest single category of deduction these taxpayers will take is home mortgage interest, totaling about $194 billion. Encouragingly, the fastest-growing deduction may be charitable giving, which went up by almost 20 percent in tax year 1997. As the size of these numbers shows, the income tax touches so many Americans that it is arguably the most important interface between the US government and its citizens. Tax day seems to have always been with us, like the Washington Monument, or Cher. But it hasn't been. The income tax is a relatively recent phenomenon in US history. It goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the United States from a rural agrarian society to the superpower it is today. Back in 1899, April 15 was just another day for plowing. Though industrialization was sweeping through sections of the US, the government was so small that it didn't have to chase taxes, so to speak. Washington lived off tariffs and the proceeds from the sale of federal land to homesteaders. "We had a very small Army and so forth, so the government didn't need very much," says William Samson, an expert in the history of taxation at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. …

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