Six Public Goods That Have Shaped My Life–Or, Why Taxes Are Cool

My mom's retirement, the subway, books in Washington and more. Chime in with your own examples of why we should all be happy to contribute to the collective good.

By Kai Wright Apr 15, 2011

Yeah, it’s tax time. And with a high-stakes battle over the role and size of government building in Washington, the tax filing process is more freighted with political baggage than it’s been in a while.

We’ve spent a lot of time at parsing budget priorities–and thinking about how much tax cuts for the rich cost government. For most folks, taxes are a far more personal business than all of that. Most ask just one question as they send in taxes: What’s it gonna cost me? But maybe everybody needs to also think about what we’re buying for ourselves when we file. Even those of us who are happy to contribute to the collective good could stand a reminder of why we fight for an equitable tax policy and for government’s role in creating a just society.

So today we’re following the lead of a Minnesota-based Web campaign called Thank Taxes. The campaign urges everyone to take a photo of themselves with a sign thanking taxes for a public good they love. You should do it. Here on Colorlines, we’ll just shout out our favorite public goods. Below is my own list; chime into the comments with yours.

What Have Taxes Ever Done For Me?

My grandfathers’ jobs

I wasn’t even born when taxes started to shape my life. During and following the second World War, federal money pumped into the economy to create jobs, get folks’ homes and support college education. Black people were barred from most of those opportunities, but both my mothers’ and fathers’ families were among the lucky exceptions. Both of my grandfathers landed civilian jobs on military bases, and those jobs propelled their families, and their children’s families, into the middle class that so many black Americans still haven’t reached.

My 3rd grade teacher

I won’t call her name, but she’s one of many educators who shaped my life. And not just because she taught me the three Rs. Rather, as a young black woman, she could see the strain I was feeling as a black kid in a largely white, suburban elementary school. I fought a lot, with both students and teachers. White school administrators said I had emotional problems and needed counseling; my teacher realized I was just learning how to deal with the racism that surrounded me. Today, I couldn’t recount the intangible lessons she taught me about being black in a white-run world; they certainly wouldn’t have appeared on any standardized test. But I know she became a source of safety and calm in an otherwise chaotic school day.

My mother’s pension

Speaking of public school teachers, my own mother taught elementary school for decades. Like too many seniors today–particularly those of color–she’s now retired in name alone, as she continues to try and make the monthly ends meat. It’s not easy, but one thing has helped tremendously: The pension she earned during all those years of helping raise other folks’ children into productive parts of society. If Republican governors around the country get their way, the next generation of career-dedicated teachers and public servants like my mother won’t have that security.

Clean drinking water

As an adult living in New York City, my quality of life depends upon uncounted public goods. Our unmatched tap water may be my favorite example–and it’s an ideal case study for why some things are best run as public goods rather than private ventures.

New York’s first public well was dug in 1667, about a block away from’s office in lower Manhattan. But as population swelled, wells quickly became useless; there weren’t enough of them and waste easily polluted them. In 1799, the state tried a private scheme, giving the Manhattan Company exclusive rights to supply well water to the city. But the company’s real interest was in using the money it made to start Chase Manhattan bank. The water supply remained putrid; the bank thrived. So in 1837 the city put thousands of immigrants to work on the massive engineering feat of creating a public water supply from the Croton River in Westchester. Today, three massive reservoirs supply the city’s water, and allow me to walk up to my faucet and drink safely.

Public transit

I haven’t owned a car in 20 years. Enough said. Now, I’m no fan of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that runs New York State’s transit systems. And they need to stop raising fares that make it harder and harder for working people to live in the city. But that’s another post altogether. Management problems set to the side, me and five million other New Yorkers will use the subway today, and that’s a feat.

The Library of Congress

Some folks look in awe at our national parks, and they’re great. Me, I’m wowed by our national library. The Library’s primary goal is to serve Congress–it’s literally the place where lawmakers can look stuff up. It was founded in 1800, when the Capitol moved to D.C., and then revived in 1815, after the British burned the first one down. Congress bought Thomas Jefferson’s renowned personal collection of 6,487 books to get it going. Jefferson expected some controversy over his library’s sprawling contents, so he included a note that the conservatives who fetishize him today, while censoring the Smithsonian, may want to read:

I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.

Today the Library serves so much more than Congress; it serves you too. It houses an awesome 144 million items, ranging from back issues of Ebony Magazine to rare maps. An increasing number of them are digitized, or at least searchable on its website, which also contains many great histories. The Library sits across the street from the Capitol and next door to the Supreme Court–knowledge is power, one gathers while standing amid the three buildings. If you haven’t been to it, go this summer. Take a tour of the gorgeous Jefferson Building. Then go get a library card, sit down in the stunning main reading room, order up a beautiful text from your library, and dive in.

It’s money well spent.