Taxing theology? Washington Post does pretty solid reporting on exemptions for big Utah families


In journalism, sometimes it takes an outsider to provide an inside look at a community, such as the one I reside in and commute through daily.

Today's example is a Washington Post story about the uncertain impact of pending tax reform legislation, headlined in part: "In land of large families, deep uncertainty over impact of tax overhaul." (The original URL for the story inserts the word "Utah," followed by a comma, between "in" and "land.")

Let's drop in on the story, shall we? The key: How did these political-beat reporters handle the religion details in this topic?

AMERICAN FORK, Utah -- This is how Becca Riding, mother of five, thinks about the tax changes speeding through Congress: Will she and her husband still be able to pay swim team fees for Emily, 13, and Caleb, 11? Will Ainsley, 9, be able to go back to the week-long science summer camp she loved? Can their family still go camping once a year in a national park? And will it remain as affordable to give 10 percent of their income to the Mormon Church, as their faith prescribes?
Middle-class families like the Ridings have been at the center of the Republican message about why the party needs to pass a massive overhaul of the nation’s tax code. The Senate’s top tax writer, Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch (R), pledged that the legislation would bring relief to “hard-working American families and small businesses in Utah and around the country.” President Trump surrounded himself with families at the White House as he urged lawmakers to pass the bill.
But days before Congress plans to pass the biggest tax overhaul in three decades, the Ridings and other middle-class families are still seeking basic answers about the plan and how it will affect not just their pocketbooks but their everyday lives.

I currently have a day job in Lindon, Utah, a few miles south of American Fork, through which I pass morning and evening. (If someone throws a hubcap on the I-15 there during the afternoon rush, watch out.)

So I have some first-hand knowledge of the area and the community. The landscape is dotted with chapels and other facilities related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- generally one "ward," or congregation, for every 400 families. There's an LDS temple in American Fork, as seen in the image at the top of this post (Rick Willoughby via Wikimedia Commons). As with much of Utah County, immediately south of Salt Lake County, the area is heavily Mormon.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. But there's little doubt that it helps to know the "lay of the land," as the saying goes, when writing about a community.

The thrust of the Post article is that the new tax plan may give with one hand and take away with another.

The religion hook? For the dedicated, tithing is not optional, as the story points out:

Becca Riding, 38, and her husband, Dave Riding, 40, both Mormons, tithe 10 percent of their income each year to the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, just like many of the Mormons who make up a majority of Utah’s population. This strong tithing tradition helps explain why Utah has one of the highest rates of charitable giving in the nation. It is also part of the reason that Utah can look like a coastal blue state at tax time, as residents give so much to the church that they use the charitable deduction more often than people in other states.
The Republican tax plan is projected to dramatically cut the number of people who make charitable contributions, because of a decision to increase a standard tax break that can limit the need for deductions. Donations to charities, including churches, could drop by about $13 billion, or 4.5 percent next year, according to the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. 
Becca Riding said no change to tax law would prevent the family from giving to the church.
“We’re glad to do it,” she said. “But why do they need to make it harder for us?”

Something to note here is that Becca Riding's testimony contradicts the Indiana University claim: This family, at least, will not stop giving to their church regardless of what the tax law does.

I'd suggest that's likely true for observant tithers in many religious groups. Having a tax deduction is nice, but it's not an integral part of worship; people tithed before there was an income tax, and many, if not most, will continue to give should the write-off end. And, again, it's not entirely clear how many folks will suffer under the proposed rules.

The deductions for children in a large family such as the Ridings -- they have five kids -- are a bit trickier to follow. The only "religious" aspect worth noting here, and conspicuous by its absence, would be an explanation that LDS theology encourages families to have lots of kids. Of course, such an explanation might be seen as a "rabbit trail" leading away from the story's main focus: economics.

Overall, however, The Washington Post is to be commended for taking a look at how tax reform will impact some people of a very specific faith. It's an angle other journalists would do well to consider.

Initial image: Family of Joseph Fielding Smith, Sr., sixth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who died in 1918, five years after the Internal Revenue Service was established. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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