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Uncle Sam doesn’t mind taxpayers paying extra

John Dimsdale Apr 16, 2012

Sarah Gardner: When Warren Buffett says he thinks wealthy people should pay more taxes, there’s nothing stopping him. In fact, the Treasury Department runs a whole system for accepting gifts to Uncle Sam. And as John Dimsdale reports, people do give.

John Dimsdale: Amber Culver is an employment training counselor in Janesville, Wis. She first started paying taxes back in the 1980s.

Amber Culver: Then when the public debt got so bad, just after the Reagan presidency, that’s when I was aware that people could contribute to help pay that down.

Ever since, Culver has given between $10 and $20 extra every year; she figures she’s up to around $300 total.

Culver: I knew that little amounts of money added up to big amounts of money. And it’s just been a way of life.

Last year, people like Culver voluntarily gave more than $3 million to help shrink the debt. The Bureau of Public Debt even accepts electronic transfers from checking accounts or credit card payments on the website

Pastor Teri Motley at the United Church of Jaffrey in New Hampshire thinks it’s such a good idea, she’s planning to make her first donation this year.

Teri Motley: I’m thinking maybe $200. Maybe more. I’ll have to sit down with my church pledge, my public radio pledge and some of the other charities I support. But it’s going to be in the basket with the rest of them.

Other taxpayers, or their estates, donate cash and property to help out the government every year. Last year, more than $310 million in tax deductible gifts went to everything from the Agency for International Development to the National Park Service.

Sheldon Cohen: They had a good year. They heard the United States was wanting. Y’know?

When Sheldon Cohen was IRS Commissioner, he would read the letters from citizen donors.

Cohen: It’s not going to solve the budget problem.

Remember, the deficit is more than a trillion dollars a year. That’s added up to $15.5 trillion in public debt.

Cohen: But every little bit helps. The deficit is $3 million less because there were $3 million in contributions last year.

Cohen says a little publicity from the IRS might bring in more money. Eric Toder, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, wonders about adding a line soliciting gifts on the standard tax form.

Eric Toder: My guess is if you had that and if it were in people’s faces, they probably would contribute more. Just like if somebody puts a collection box in the supermarket. Some people tend to pay. Not enough to balance the budget, but sure there would be more contributions if that were the case.

Although Toder says contributors might find their gifts have been hijacked.

Toder: You have no idea how that dollar you give is going to be used. It’s going into the government’s coffers and Congress might say ‘oh, we have more money coming in, we can spend more. Or we can cut somebody else’s taxes.’ It is all fungible.

Still, Amber Culver, who hopes her gifts to the government will spark a grassroots movement of like-minded citizens, sees merit in the publicity idea.

Culver: I could see the spokespeople for the “Hunger Games” going out and being part of the campaign.

Hey IRS, are you listening?

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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