For those of you who, like me, still rely on your fingers to count and find arithmetic less than simple, $250,000 is one-quarter of a million dollars. That is a lot of money: 10 times the average annual income of an American worker, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And it is 25 times the poverty level for an individual, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. For most of us, the odds of making that much money a year are about as high as winning the Powerball jackpot.
So it should come as no surprise to hear that one of the top-tiered Democratic presidential candidates, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, is ready to make life just a little simpler and a lot less stressful for a group of Americans often ignored — those earning less than $250,000 a year.
As the first Democratic candidate to announce a plan to provide middle-class tax relief, Obama's "Tax Fairness for the Middle Class" is one not to be ignored. To paraphrase that old Raging Cajun James Carville, it's still the economy, stupid.
Middle-class wage earners deserve some tax relief, and if it means that the top 2 percent of wage earners in the United States would be pinched by Obama's proposed tax plan, which would roll back the tax cuts President Bush imposed for the super-rich, I say let them refry their beans. Obama's plan offers more than hope: It provides fairness to everyone.
His plan is simple: 98 percent of Americans, particularly low- and middle-income households, would see their taxes reduced. Obama's "Making Work Pay" tax credit would save these wage earners roughly $500 a year. Don't laugh. Depending on where you live, that's rent money, a car insurance payment, a couple of utility bills or a yearly cell phone bill. For someone making the new minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, $500 can be the difference between health and homelessness.
For senior citizens earning less than $50,000 per year, this plan would eliminate their taxes completely, easing their financial burden and allowing them to retire without worrying about the steep rise in the cost of living.
"At a time when Americans are working harder than ever," Obama argues, "we are taxing income from work at nearly twice the level that we're taxing gains for investors. … Instead of having all of us pay our fair share, we've got over $1 trillion worth of loopholes in the corporate tax code. This isn't the invisible hand of the market at work. It's the successful work of special interests."
But Obama's plan is not just about fairness or saving people money. It's also about saving us time in filing out all those tax forms. Obama's proposal includes simplifications of the tax-filing process that would save 200 million hours of paperwork, chopping the average time 40 million Americans spend on tax preparation down to five minutes. It seems impossible to even imagine given what a nightmare April 14 is for all of us but the most organized.
As the Chicago Tribune reported, "Because employers and banks must report wages and interest income to the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS can compute the tax bills for many Americans without additional input." This would mean that all we need to do is verify a tax return pre-prepared by the IRS, sign it and send a check. If time is money, Obama's plan will save us a small fortune.
The knives will be out for Obama. Ever since Democratic nominee and former Vice President Walter Mondale suggested we raise taxes to pay down the deficit, Democrats have sought ways to avoid even the "T" word. Even if Congress decides to roll back the Bush tax cuts to help pay for the war, it's still risky for any serious Democratic candidate to discuss it. But the time is right for Obama, trailing New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in both national and statewide polls, to take a calculated risk. With dazzling charm, a fresh face and a huge war chest, time, not Clinton, is his biggest opponent.
Perhaps he has found his voice and an issue that can unite us. A lot has been made about Obama's inexperience. Yet once before in our nation's history, Americans, desperate for major change, took a chance on an inexperienced candidate: Abraham Lincoln.
Change doesn't come from the people who have spent decades inside the system. There is such a thing as "Washington think," and it doesn't take long for lawmakers steeped in procedural rules and decorum to run out of ideas. Obama's tax-fairness plan deserves serious debate, and he deserves a chance to show us how common sense and good judgment are as much presidential characteristics as having executive experience.
What we're looking for in a president is someone who will make the right choices even when it's tough. His tax plan could be both. Now let's see if he has the experience to sell it to the public and the judgment to show us how it can make a difference in all our lives.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and former campaign manager for Al Gore.