A single mom supporting two kids as a waitress on a salary of $22,000. That's the image President Bush has repeatedly invoked when talking about the $1.6 trillion tax cut he sent to Congress last week. He says the package will save that mom a grand.
"A tax cut is nice, but it's not like it's anything you're ever really going to see or feel," says Marlena Griffin, 47, a San Francisco Denny's waitress whose kids are grown. Asked if she'd want a tax cut if that meant -- as Democrats charge -- that money would not be available for other programs, such as expanding Medicare to include prescription drugs, shoring up Social Security and paying down the deficit, she says, "I'd rather have $1,000 because $1,000 is $1,000, but like I said I'm not gonna get $1,000. It's the rich people who are going to benefit."
Talking to a small sampling of real waitresses who really are single moms and really make $22,000 -- or much less -- that sentiment keeps coming up: a tax cut? Sure, we'll take it. But we're not holding our breath.
"Well, of course that sounds good," says Mary Backstrom, 41, of a $1,000 tax break. Backstrom is a mother of four, two at home, who works at Splash Seafood Bar and Grill in Des Moines, Iowa. "Anything helps. That's a lot."
Whenever politicians talk about tax cuts, says Robin, 32, who works at the City Diner in Corpus Christi, Texas, "I don't believe 'em, because they've not proven it so far." A mother of two, she says she makes about $13,000 a year.
"Under current tax law, low-income workers often pay the highest marginal rates," goes a typical Bush sound bite, in this case on his campaign Web site. "For example, a single waitress supporting two children on an income of $22,000 faces a higher marginal tax rate than a lawyer making $220,000."
But Democrats say that lawyer's far more likely to benefit than that waitress under Bush's plan. "If you're a millionaire, under the Bush tax cut, you get a $46,000 tax cut, more than enough to pay for this Lexus," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Feb. 8 while standing next to a luxury car and holding a muffler. "But if you're a typical working person, you get $227. And that's enough to buy this muffler." (A New York tax expert quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer called that an exaggeration, saying a family earning $50,000 would save $2,000 while a family earning $300,000 would save $10,000.)
Democrats also said that Bush's tax cut is reminiscent of the one in Ronald Reagan's first term, which "resulted in the largest budget deficits in history, and over a 12-year period after that quadrupled the national debt," said Rep. Michael McNulty, D-N.Y.
Robin, in Texas, says that despite her low pay she doesn't want a tax cut at the expense of social programs. "I don't think so, because I believe that the elderly on Medicare need it more."
"I think they should expand Medicare because of the older people," says Griffin, the San Francisco waitress. "They deserve it because they've been around, they've paid their dues. And some of them can't even afford to go to the hospital, and they've got to live in these rat-infested apartments."
In a Rose Garden ceremony on Feb. 8, Bush said the plan he submitted to Congress, much the same as the proposal he ran on, would lower tax rates overall, eliminate the so-called death tax and marriage penalty, reduce the number of tax brackets, encourage charitable giving and double the child credit to $1,000 -- all without sacrificing social programs or deficit reduction.
For that single mom waitress "on the outskirts of poverty," Bush says his tax plan dismantles what he's called "a toll booth right in the middle of the road to the middle class."
For 22-year-old Nikki Rae, a mother of two who works at Reflections Restaurant in Boise, Idaho, that road looks like it has a steep grade. "It's not so good here in Idaho," she chuckles after estimating her annual income at "maybe $15,000." Asked if a tax cut would be worth it to her even if it meant less spending on Medicare, Social Security, schools or deficit reduction, she pauses: "Mmm ... maybe." Her kids are 5 and 1.
"It's really hard on me as a waitress," she says. "You only get paid, sometimes, depending on what job you get, you only get $3.35 an hour or $3.50 an hour. The highest I've ever made is $4.50 an hour. The thing that really concerns me is the tip money. We work really hard for that. Sometimes we'll get a $50 table and they'll only leave a couple bucks, you know? Not everybody leaves that 15 percent."
Griffin also mentions tips: "We have to pay [tax on] 8 percent" of sales, she says, "and if we don't pay it, the penalty is 13 percent. And sometimes, you don't even get the tip, but you've still got to pay it."
"And then if you mess up at all," says Rae, "you could get audited, and that worries me a lot."
So would Bush's tax cut put these single mom waitresses on the "road to the middle class"? And if so, would that be at the expense of deficit reduction, Medicare expansion and other programs?
"Well, you know, I've been listening to both sides on that and different people's ideas," says Backstrom, in Iowa, "and what it sounds like they're talking about is that over 10 years there's going to be enough of a surplus to take care of all those things and still give us a tax cut. But I certainly don't have a lot of time to sit around and ponder these things, so I don't know if these people who are talking are experts, or even know what they're talking about.
"I guess it depends which way they're leaning."