BY ANDREW CHALFEN
Interior: Phone rings.
Voice: A tax on juice drinks and soda would squeeze hard-working families struggling to pay their bills and keep their health courage.
Me: Well, the money would go to low-income schools.
Voice: [flustered] This message is paid for by the Beverage Industry of...
Me: I'm sure it is. But the-
And so it went: The Big Beverage pusherman is not interested in discussion. Now, I have no beef with the woman trying to make a few bucks by reading a script at the phone bank. But really: Why do we still have this landline, again? Solely for its twisted window into the minds of pollsters, fundraisers, and lobbyists? At least it relays coveted phone push-pitch gold from Big Beverage against the proposed Philly soda tax, so I mentioned it on Facebook. A few posts later and folks are already talking about my privilege and what constitutes "regressive": the tax, or the diabetes and ER visits?
There are so many angles to this issue that the overlapping Venn diagram of arguments pro and con are expanding in a fractal-like blackened scribble. My own (admittedly idiosyncratic) view is that maybe all food products with refined/added sugar should be taxed. I'm a total sugar addict. It's my nicotine. It's proven to be addictive and bad for you in the quantities that most Americans consume. And if you live in poor, inner-city area or rural areas, junk food is what everyone has been consuming for several generations, and the beverage industry specifically targets their ads at these populations, specifically kids. "African-American youth see 80 to 90 percent more ads for sugary drinks than their white counterparts, according to a 2011 report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity" — this, from a 2014 HuffPost piece summarizing the pro-beverage tax positions better than I can. Throw in the prevalence of food deserts and intractable systemic poverty, and you can wash down your Big Gulp with Big Beverage's tears of concern.
I'm certainly somewhere enviable on the spectrum of privilege, but I learn more every year about how power works (thank you, Occupy and Black Lives Matter) and am rapidly coming around to the idea that a lot of poverty could be eradicated if there weren't ways for the powerful to make lots of money off it.
Why do we even need this tax? To make up for the lack of fairness in Pennsylvania's distribution of taxpayer money to school districts. It's a way for the City to definitively improve lives in these needy communities. It will almost certainly have a positive effect on health outcomes. (Check out this Harvard Study.) The PA Legislature could change the law, just like gun laws, fracking laws, you name it. But guess who funds their campaigns and gives them plush lobbying jobs once they're out of office? Keep on pushing, as they say. For a variety of reasons, the influence of Big Beverage is on the wane. It's a chink in the armor of power and we should exploit that with the power we do have: government regulation and taxation.
Andrew Chalfen is a songwriter and visual artist living in West Philadelphia. Learn more about him here.