Thursday, April 01, 2010

Dear Uncle Sam

This April started off with Passion/Palm Sunday. Then Easter on April 8. April is also when we celebrated 10 family birthdays! April is springtime!

So please forgive me for bringing up Income Tax! But on April 9 can April 16 be far behind?
In the late sixties, I lived out near the Internal Revenue Service Center and received a notice that Tax Examiners were needed. I took the Civil Service exam and worked as a seasonal Tax Examiner there for several years. (Two of our children were in College at the time.) I was only a small cog in the large IRS machine, but even a small cog "inside IRS" may serve as a liaison between the government and the people.

For example, soon after I became a tax examiner, a high school student came up to me in church one Sunday and began, "Mrs. S, I understand you work for Internal Revenue." I nodded agreement. He raised his voice a few octaves, "You all have not mailed my income tax refund yet." Before I could answer, he wailed accusingly, “and I need my money real bad."

When other citizens need their money “real bad,” they write letters. One man took out a lined tablet and a pencil and laboriously wrote, “Look, I am not begging you, but you will remember that when I owed you money, you could not wait for me to pay you. You took it out of my pay check. But now that you owe me, why does it take so long? "

Letters to Uncle Sam, like letters to any uncle, are geared to the personality and character of the uncle or to what the writer of the letter perceives that uncle to be. The letters are sometimes friendly, sometimes angry; but they are always personal. It occurred to me, as I read many of the letters, that they were "Uncle Sam" correspondence rather than the usual business letter.

“I know Uncle Sam has gotten his financial affairs in poor condition,” one letter began, “but," the letter continued, “I do not think a poor widow, with a mortgage on her little home, unable to do a full day's work, should have to pay taxes to make up the deficit.”

As I read this, my mind wandered momentarily from my job as Tax Examiner for the nation's largest boss, (The government –local, state and federal -- employs more persons than the steel industry, the auto industry and all other durable goods manufacturers combined, I am told. One could say, “there really is an Uncle Sam” in the eyes of some who write. Like “Dutch Uncle.”

I cannot tell you about the routine business mail that flooded the Service Center when I was an employee. Privacy Code. But the “Uncle Sam Letters” are extracted from my memory where they hang like shiny ornaments to brighten an otherwise routine day. These are the American taxpayers -- like the little old lady who takes pen in hand and flowered stationary to tell Uncle Sam something for his own good. Another was not quite so clear in his brief note, “I sent you in April my income tax refund. I have not received my returns yet.”

And another in breathless Edith Bunker charm wrote, “Well, I’ve goofed again. Since I last wrote to you I received my wages statements that I told you about but I misplaced the other two, I am truly sorry for all the trouble I’m causing you. But I’m sure I’ll learn from this experience. Enclosed are all three of my wages statements. Would you please take care of my income tax for me? I don’t know where else to turn at this late date and if I can’t trust my government, who can I trust? Right? “

I believe we can trust Uncle Sam. After all he is a taxpayer, too. And most government employees work efficiently in spite of their critics. IRS also has a department called Quality Review whose workers examine the tax examiners.

Let me tell you something else about Uncle Sam. Even though he appears stern with that outstretched finger saying “Uncle Sam wants You”, I think he has a sense of humor. I laughed out loud the first time I saw a garbage can labeled, “Classified Trash.”’ The purpose of these disposal containers is to carry out the Privacy Act.

We hear a great deal about privacy today, but it is not a new brick to throw at our political leaders. In the early seventies extreme measures were taken to protect the privacy of taxpayers. All accounts information, any copy or transcript of a document, return or even a scrap of paper containing a part of a name, address, social security number or any identifying information that was to be discarded must be disposed of as classified waste. Employers were not to impart such information to friends, relatives or co-workers. Tight security on all private information and documents was rigidly observed. In the few notes I made for this article, I did not write any name, address or identifying information nor numbers.

Posters were everywhere in the building to remind: “ Don’t talk about Disclosure Matters During Coffee, Lunch, or at Home.” No one did, but one day it was rumored that a package containing a woman’s underpants was opened in the mailroom. The lady was just plain mad at Uncle Sam. She wrote that she no longer needed this garment since she had worked that part of her anatomy off paying taxes. The silly rumor, of course, created a little diversion and questions: What disposition was made of the package? Was it put in classified trash? Was it filed with the original return? Was it discarded with unclassified garbage? Only Uncle Sam knows -- and he did not tell me.

Many citizens have trouble filling in the “Occupation” space on Form 1040. One man put “Card Player” (Temporary Talent). Evidently the parenthesis was a second thought to keep from appearing too prosperous.
Some respondents, sounding a little dazed at what they call “Federal Bureaucracy, hold their ears up close to Uncle Sam and find unique ways of saying, “Would you please repeat that.” One man wrote, “Could you elucidate your question so I could answer it more succinctly.” Another simply stated, “I cannot locate what you are talking about. Please send me copies of what you mean.”

Another cynic wrote, “Perhaps there was trouble in understanding the explanation since it was not answered in 'Bureaucratese.'" Period!


Carol said...

This is really funny! I'm glad you shared these experiences with us. I just finished my tax return last night and filed it electronically. Whew! I'm glad that's over for another year.

Joan said...

This was VERY interesting. I really enjoyed reading about these letters to our uncle.