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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Taxing Privacy

Hayes R. Holderness (McDermott Will & Emery, New York), Taxing Privacy, 21 Geo. J. Poverty Law and Policy 1 (2014):

In the United States, many low-income citizens are being held to a harsher standard than wealthier citizens—these low-income citizens are being asked to relinquish their privacy in order to obtain the public assistance they need, whereas wealthier individuals are not subjected to similar levels of public scrutiny for government benefits that they claim. Giving up privacy can have devastating effects on individuals’ lives—they may suffer various dignitary harms, may experience repressed abilities to express themselves, and may even be coerced into important life decisions by the government. This situation presents a unique problem to the neediest in our society: they can either give up their privacy in order to receive benefits they are otherwise eligible for, or they can retain their private lives and suffer an economic burden in the amount of the foregone benefits.

This choice may not seem outrageous to many in the United States, but it presents a serious issue for our society. Under the current system of public benefits administration, we ask a vulnerable segment of our citizenry to surrender significantly more information about themselves to their communities and to the government than we ask of any other segment, and it is not clear that valid justifications for this system exist. Many have researched the effects of various procedural requirements for receiving various forms of public assistance. This Article follows that research and contrasts the economic effects of those requirements on eligible individuals who forego their benefits with the privacy harms created by those requirements for those who submit to them. Government actors must consider this balance to ensure that the burden we put on those receiving public assistance is fair and efficient. By considering that balance differently—through the lens of taxation—this Article hopes to shed light on a disturbing situation and to help frame the discussion for potential reform.

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