DN editorial: Concern about poor from some circles seems disingenous

Opponents of Mayor Kenney's proposal to add a tax on sugary drinks took their protest to the street, demonstrating outside Philadelphia City Hall.

GOODNESS KNOWS it's not easy being poor . . . And too many people in the city know this firsthand. While being out of work, or unable to afford food, shelter, or transportation is hard enough, it doesn't help that being poor often puts you at the mercy of other people's ideas of how you should live.

Take the recent skirmish over the sugary-drink tax, an initiative by Mayor Kenney to impose a tax on soda to fund expanded pre-K and improvements to parks and recreation sites. The final version City Council voted out of committee last week will modify the original plan of 3 cents an ounce on sugary drinks and impose a 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened drinks, including diet sodas. This will bring in $91 million a year.

The revelation that in the early years while the pre-K program is ramping up, some money - about $24 million over four years - will go to shore up the city's fund balance, which has dropped from $150 million to $70 million, had anti-tax advocates crying foul, saying that the mayor pulled a bait-and-switch. They claimed Kenney was pushing his tax for the kids, but in fact only wanted to shore up the city's budget.

We have been consistent supporters of the soda tax, primarily because we support the value of what quality pre-K can provide. Yet, we find this claim of bait-and-switch to be disingenuous. To our minds, the real bait-and-switch is the hand-wringing of many anti-soda-tax people over how this tax will hurt poor people. Here is the typical language: "Low-income residents will bear the brunt of this, as they generally pay little or no income taxes, but do spend a disproportionate amount of their income on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages."

There's an irony of such "concern," from people who rarely sweat over inequality or social injustice. For example, the language above came from a commentary that ran in these pages from Americans for Prosperity, a tea-party-inspired group created by the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers. AFP has many darlings in Congress, primarily Republicans who are rarely known for their concern for the poor. In fact, recently failed vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is one of AFP's poster children - the same Paul Ryan who believes that poverty is caused by lazy inner-city men, that antipoverty programs lead to dependency (and more laziness), and, along with fellow Republicans in Congress, consistently tried to gut funding for programs that help the poor.

Meanwhile, pre-K expansion can have a huge and direct impact on poverty. A report by the Philadelphia Commission on universal pre-K issued in April echoed extensive research done on the impact of pre-K: "Pre-Kindergarten programs . . . result in fewer children in special education classes, higher graduation rates, increased earning potential, better health, and narrowing the achievement gap rooted in income and other environmental factors ... Yet only one in three of Philadelphia's 42,500 3-and 4-year-olds have access to affordable quality pre-K."

In addition, pre-K allows more parents, especially mothers, to join or re-enter the workforce.

Those fighting so hard against the soda tax effectively said that they'd rather poor people be able to afford sugary drinks than participate in education programs that will have meaningful and positive impact on their lives. Sounds a little like "let them drink soda" to us.