Sin taxes: the unusually high taxes we impose against disfavored activities in the hope that, if the activity becomes way too expensive, people will think twice about engaging in that particular sin. Cigarettes and alcohol are the two major targets of sin taxes.
In California, in 1998, California voters passed Prop. 10, a sin tax which imposed a $0.50 tax on each pack of cigarettes. This tax was accompanied by the directive that the money raised would go to aid children. If I remember correctly from my own sense at the time, and as UC Berkeley Professor Bruce Fuller argued, whatever the Prop’s actual language may have been, voters believed that the money raised would aid disadvantaged children:
“Rob Reiner sold this as a way to help kids from low-income (families) – zero to 5 – have better futures,” said Fuller.
What’s happened, unsurprisingly, is that smokers still smoke, only those with families have less money, I guess, for their own children. What’s also happened is that the savvy people are getting the money and, especially in the Bay Area, savvy isn’t always the same as disadvantaged:
Scores of savvy San Francisco parents have tapped a pot of taxpayer dollars for everything from children’s ice skating lessons and Monterey Bay Aquarium field trips to supplies for Halloween parties and chartered buses to the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.
Whether rich or poor, applicants can get up to $11,000 over three years for all kinds of activities from First 5 San Francisco, a local agency charged with distributing Proposition 10 tobacco tax revenue to promote early childhood development.
Last year, about $564 million in Prop. 10 revenue was distributed by the state and its 58 county First 5 commissions, which have wide discretion over how the money is used. San Francisco’s commission receives about $9 million annually and uses $200,000 each year to fund its unique Parent Action Grants program, which began in 2001.
I can’t blame these parents at all. I would do the same if I still lived in the City and knew about the program. The way the program is set up, it’s supposed to aid parents in parenting. And heck, I may be well-educated and (Thank God!) financially pretty secure, but that doesn’t mean that, as a parent, I can’t use all the help I can get. The program’s distribution pattern practically invites people like me to use its resources:
A sampling of the grants:
— “Multi-Family First Time Camping Experience” included a camping lesson and overnight trip to Big Sur for six families.
— “Couples Travel and Learn Together” included an overnight stay at the Four Points Sheraton in Pleasanton, where couples from Chinatown took marriage workshops. It also included $250 in Target gift cards.
— “Families of La Piccola Scuola Italiana” included holiday party space rental and the purchase of a Babbo Natale (Italian version of Santa Claus) costume.
“We really want to engage parents and involve parents in raising their children from birth to age 5 and help them build leadership and hope that transfers to being involved in the PTA and getting involved in the community,” said Laurel Kloomok, executive director of First 5 San Francisco.
The article goes on in the same vein, but the underlying point is clear: once again, the market was perverted in the cause of good health and social justice, without any significant benefits actually flowing in that direction. It makes me very, very glad that voters recently turned down another Rob Reiner social engineering attempt, which was to have government take over all pre-schools in California — something that would have entirely destroyed such wonderful pre-K programs as Montessori and Waldorf.