The WPA and Federal Relief Policy

By Donald S. Howard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVII
FEDERAL RESPONSIBILITY: MORE EQUITABLE SPREADING OF THE COST

TENDENCY OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO LEVY TAXES IN ACCORDANCE WITH ABILITY TO PAY

FEDERAL AID for relief, as well as for other public purposes, has repeatedly been urged on the ground that federal taxes, to a greater degree than others, are graduated in accordance with ability to pay. State and local taxes, on the other hand, rest largely upon real estate, commodity sales, and other less equitable bases which do not make proportionately greater demands upon those most able to meet them.1

Of the essential justice of levying taxes in accordance with ability to pay, Clarence Heer wrote in 1939:

Most people today believe that the cost of governmental functions, undertaken primarily in the general interest and conferring no measurable special benefits on individuals as such, should be distributed among the citizens in accordance with their respective abilities to pay. It is believed proper to apply the ability principle of taxation even in distributing the costs of governmental services that do confer measurable individual benefits when the services in question are considered vital to the general welfare and when the benefited individuals are unable to pay for the services themselves. Thus, it is believed

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1
Though this policy of distributing relief costs in accordance with ability to pay has a modern ring to it, an English act passed by Parliament as early as 1563 made contributions of householders for relief purposes compulsory and provided for scaling these contributions in accordance with their circumstances. Of this law the Webbs have written: "The bishop of each diocese was authorised to bind any person or persons who 'of his or their froward wilful mind, shall obstinately refuse to give weekly to the relief of the poor according to his or their abilities', under penalty of £10, to appear at the next sessions of the Justices, and if any one refused to be so bound, the bishop might commit him to prison. At their next sessions, the Justices were again to 'charitably and gently persuade and move the said obstinate persons to extend his or their charity towards the relief of the poor'. If any one still refused, the Justices were to impose a tax on him 'according to their good discretions', in default of payment of which, 'together with the arrearages thereof, if any', he might be committed to prison until payment was made. Here, at length, we have, in germ, the legally compulsory and universally payable Poor Rate."-- Webb Sidney and Beatrice, English Local Government: English Poor Law History. Part I: The Old Poor Law. Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1927, pp. 51-52.

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