Alabama is one of two states — along with Mississippi — that fully apply sales tax on food. Most states either exempt food purchases, tax them at a lower rate or provide rebates to citizens based on income.
“I almost fell over when I went to the grocery store for the first time (in Alabama),” said Kristine Scott, executive director of the Alabama Poverty Project.
Scott said, when she moved to the state, her first grocery bill jumped from the $200 she estimated to $225. She said an Alabama shopper can cross the state line into Florida and pay 10 percent less for the exact same merchandise.
Scott said Alabama, like much of the country, is recovering from two years of a brutal economic climate and dealing with record high poverty rates, but the grocery tax plays a key role in sending the state to the top of the hunger list.
The recent report from the USDA states that 6.8 percent of Alabama households from 2007 to 2009 experienced hunger because they could not afford groceries. This is compared to a national average of 5.2 percent. From 2004 to 2006, the USDA found the rate to be 3.3 percent in Alabama and 3.9 percent nationally.
Though unpopular, Alabama’s tax on groceries provides for approximately $400 million in state revenue for education every year. However, critics call the measure a disproportionate means of gaining state revenue that burdens working class citizens. They argue residents with lower incomes pay a far greater percentage of their salaries toward the grocery tax than those in higher income brackets.
Many groups lobbying for citizens with low income, including Alabama Arise, have launched in campaigns to do away with the tax. However, with a $400 million hit to the state’s education funding and Alabama voters’ distaste for new taxes, past efforts to repeal the grocery tax have been political poison.
As the result of a bill he sponsored that would remove the 4 percent sales tax on groceries sold in the state, Rep. John Knight D-Montgomery last year received the coffin-shaped shroud award, which is given annually in jest for the deadest bill of the year.
The bill substituted the revenue from the grocery tax with a measure that prevented state income tax deductions on federal income taxes paid for those making $200,000 or more. The bill phased out deductions for those making less than $200,000, from a full 100 percent deduction for those making 76,200 or less to 1 percent deduction for those making between $198,750 and $200,000.
“That (striking down the grocery tax) was the number one priority of the Democratic Caucus for the last two years, and we could never get Republicans to go along with it,” said former State Rep. Ken Guin D-Carbon Hill.
Guin said he was one of several Democratic legislators who pushed for the bill. As House Majority Leader, Guin said that four times he placed the bill on the calendar to be voted on, and each time it was struck down “in mass” by Republican lawmakers.
When asked why the legislation failed so easily, Guin said there was one simple reason: Politics of special interest.
“It was just primarily the rank and file members of the opposition party that tend to support large corporations and wealthier individuals,” he said.
With the recent Republican takeover of the Alabama Legislature, Guin said he just doesn’t see the issue becoming a priority.
Newly elected Republican Sen. Greg Reed and representatives Bill Roberts and Richard Baughn all said they would not support a measure that replaces one tax with another.
“I hate that we do it, but the only issue is we have to replace the revenue,” Roberts said.
Roberts said that, given the current education budget, the state cannot afford to take $400 million away from schools.
Baughn said he believes the state can repeal the grocery tax without placing new taxes by eliminating wasteful government spending.
“I know we are taking in enough money to do what we need in Alabama and America,” he said.
Each of the newly elected local candidates said they would like to see the study before they could be sure that hunger in Alabama is as prevalent as the research indicates.
“Statistics are only as good as the person who compiles them,” Roberts said.
Baughn also said he believes the substance abuse in the state plays a large role in the rates of hunger.
“I promise you that in at least eight out of 10 households where kids go hungry, it (drug use) is present,” he said.
None of the newly elected officials said they had specific ideas to combat the rising hunger statistics.
Reed said he believes that in many cases, people who are going to bed hungry could be helped by government or private assistance within their community. He said the problem is just identifying those in need and publicizing the services.
He said the Jasper Area Family Services Center — a center that puts various community service organizations together under one roof — is a perfect example of a solution from within the community.
“It (the hunger statistics) should allow us to recognize that there are people in our society that are less fortunate and we need to be looking for opportunities to where we can be instrumental in making a difference in the life of someone that is less fortunate,” Reed said.
In regards to complaints of the grocery tax being disproportionate, Reed said he does not know how a tax cannot be equitable when it is applied at the same percentage for everyone.
“The tax rate is the same no matter what you are buying, whether it be cereal or filet mignon,” he said.