For 13 years, I lived in Baton Rouge, La., where my husband and I paid approximately $4,000 a year in property taxes for our large, historic house. It was great. Except that the public schools, deprived of a healthy tax base, were, on the whole, decrepit failures. We paid for our own three kids to attend private school.
Now I live in Montclair, N.J., where the taxes are high – several times what our local and state taxes combined were in Louisiana – and everyone and their dog complains about them.
On the other hand, Montclair in particular, and New Jersey on the whole, enjoys one of the best public school systems in the country. And the thing about public schools is (duh): It's not just the children of the already-affluent who can go there, take Advanced Placement classes, learn how to speak Italian, or master a killer breast stroke; the children of the struggling can too.
Though I'm a Yankee, I desperately loved our life in Baton Rouge. I loved its friendliness, its eccentricities, its resilient spirit, and the way the whole state rallies every time there's a hurricane. What I didn't love was the attitude, most often expressed among the financially secure, of "our" versus "their" children.
"Why should I be paying for their kids?" people said. But before you assume that the state is filled with racists, "their" kids meant any kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Alas, Louisiana has no dearth of poor folk, or poverty-related woes.
One way or another such language points to the deeply held conviction, nursed not only in Louisiana but many other places, that there is actually such a thing as children who don't deserve our compassion.
The fact of the matter is that they're all ours. The Spanish-speaking child of an unwed teenage mother in South Central, Los Angeles, is just as much the future of America as the computer-genius son of two Ivy-educated lawyers in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Those who oppose merely "throwing money" at public schools have a valid point, too, of course: You'd have to be willfully blind not to know that kids coming from financially unsound but morally intact families tend to do OK even in dicey schools, while those whose home lives are chaotic don't have much of a shot even with reasonable educational opportunities.
The question is: Just because a kid's mom lies around the house all day drinking, his dad is MIA, his brother is in jail, and the child doesn't know the difference between a noun and a verb – is this a reason to abandon a child? And if not, what can America do to help you up and out?
One thing that I know doesn't work is starving neighborhood-based after-school programs, libraries, and parks – and yet that's what cash-strapped municipalities all over the country have done in the face of the antitax, anti-big-government movement.
You want more pregnant teens? Kill off community-based sex-ed programs. More violence? Close down the public swimming pool. More drugs in general? More unemployment? More despair? By all means, why should we have to pay for their children to go to job training?
But the poor neighborhoods in Baton Rouge – or for that matter, anywhere – are prime examples of why we do need to pony up and pay our fair share of the tax burden.
In an election year where the Republican candidate not only plans to preserve the Bush tax cuts for the ridiculously wealthy but also cut taxes further for corporations, and the Democratic candidate plans to raise taxes on both the super and the merely somewhat rich, while preserving tax cuts for the middle and working classes, these are hardly theoretical questions. With median household income sliding below what it was in 2000 – the year the Republicans swept back into the White House – and the median income of households of the 65-plus generation falling a whopping 3.4 percent, it kind of makes me queasy to hear people at the top of the heap groaning about paying high taxes.
As Grandpa always said, you get what you pay for. If you want a country divided between haves and have-nots and seething with class and race resentment, then slash taxes.
Who needs an education, anyway?
• Jennifer Moses is author of "Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou," and "Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom."