In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the IRS has taken the unusual step of extending the tax season to July 15 — a move that gives people more time to consider using the old, but often overlooked tactic of war tax resistance from the safety of their homes.
For most people tax season is a hassle — involving organizing paperwork, gathering receipts, slogging through indecipherable forms — but it’s hardly an ethical or moral quandary. However, war tax resisters see taxes through a moral lens. For them it is a time ripe with opportunities for civil disobedience, charitable giving, and sophisticated accounting in the pursuit of peace — and now public health — by refusing to pay some or all of their income tax (and even their employment taxes in some cases).
The tactic is most associated with historic peace churches, including Quakers and Mennonites, and Vietnam-era anti-war activists. As a result, the demographic associated with the tactic tends to be older, but in an age of never-ending wars, climate change and an escalating pandemic, it is now being explored by millenials and younger people.
The War Resisters League, or WRL, a secular pacifist organization founded in 1923, estimates that in fiscal year 2021, some 47 percent of the federal budget will be allocated to military spending. The budget (nearly $3.5 trillion dollars in 2021) is funded by income taxes, hence war tax resisters primary focus on refusing to pay income taxes.
There are a variety of ways to avoid income taxes, some of which are legal and others which are not. Resisters may choose to live under the taxable level ($12,400 for an individual in 2020), which is legal, while others choose to file their taxes and refuse to pay any amount owed, which is illegal. Some even choose to send the money that they would have paid in taxes to a charity or non-profit, which could be an attractive option for those wanting to redirect their money to support those risking their lives to respond to the coronavirus. A host of options between those two poles are outlined by WRL and the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, or NWTRCC, a coalition of groups and individuals founded in 1982 to support war tax resistance.
“It encourages you to question how you’re relating to other people and society,” said Rev. Jerry Maynard, a 26-year-old Independent Catholic Priest, founding pastor of The People’s Church, and NWTRCC board member, who has been practicing war tax resistance since 2013. “It makes you aware that you aren’t just a fleeting reality in this giant, expansive world, but you’re really a cog in the machine. [At the same time] you’re conscious, so you can decide whether you want to turn this way or that way or if you don’t want to turn at all.”
Kody Hersh is the youth and young adult coordinator for the Southeastern Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has been practicing tax resistance for 13 years. Like many in the movement, Hersh has come to see all peace and justice work as interconnected and their opposition to war is not only that it kills people, but the belief that war reinforces racism and classism at home through military recruitment strategies, imperialism and white supremacy abroad.
While they acknowledge challenges, millennials frequently mention how their ability to engage in justice work is advanced by their involvement with tax resistance. “The particular way that I’ve resisted has meant that I have only worked part-time [to stay below the taxable level],” Hersh said, who is 32 years old. “There’s a spaciousness that gives my life in terms of pursuing interests that don’t get me paid, getting to do volunteer work that I’m really passionate about.”
Despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, increased militarization at the U.S.-Mexico border, and rising awareness about the military’s contribution to the climate crisis, tax resistance remains largely outside the popular discourse on nonviolent tactics. Lincoln Rice of NWTRCC estimates 10,000 to 20,000 people are currently resisting war taxes, but says the number is hard to determine and breaking it down demographically is impossible due to the lack of information on resisters.
Sam Yergler, who is 34 years old and has been resisting since 2008, says fear is one major reason young people are not refusing to pay their taxes in larger numbers. The opacity of the tax code combined with the Internal Revenue Service’s fearsome reputation makes many millennials think twice about engaging in tax resistance.
“The IRS is not a gangster organization that’s going to beat us up if we don’t pay,” Yergler pointed out. At the same time, however, he admitted that it “is scary to get letters saying they’re going to take your house or take your car.”
The key for many tax resisters pursuing this tactic in spite of the IRS’s reputation is to build community and amass knowledge. “The consequences may seem like they’re really high, but if you get down to it and talk to people who have done it, sometimes they’re not as bad as you might think,” Yergler said.
On its website, the NWTRCC points out there are numerous opportunities to essentially bail out of resistance by paying up, and there are many steps taken by the IRS before anything as serious as arrest is considered. In most ways this form of resistance is just like other more familiar resistance methods. For example, people risking arrest during a sit-in typically are warned at least once that arrest is imminent, and they can choose to leave instead.
The risks also depend on the tactic chosen. Maynard, who lives below the taxable income level, recommends individuals considering resistance educate themselves on the different methods by talking to people who have done it and finding out their motivations and best practices. For those who may not be sure where to start that process, WRL and NWTRCC, which offers a list of war tax resistance counselors, can be helpful resources.
“Community support has been so important to me,” Hersh said. “I think if I was starting out doing this now I would want to have lots of conversations with people in my life and what that would look like and ways they might be able to support me.” They have found many people are interested in helping them because the concept of tax resistance resonates with people even if they are not interested in pursuing it in their own lives.
“Building community is an act of resistance. It’s revolutionary, especially in this country, because in this country we’re taught that being the individual is the highest level of achievement,” Maynard said. Tax resistance may seem like a solitary and private action, but with a community network it can begin to feel akin to other types of resistance, like marches, and other movements where collective action and relationship building is the norm.
The support that community can offer may be particularly important to millennial resisters, because of the relative lack of public discussion on the method during their lifetimes and the rise of student debt. While some, like Hersh, grew up in Quaker communities where the concept was known, discussion of war tax resistance tends to be relegated to history books covering the Vietnam War and focused on the experiences of older generations.
“There are so many young people who are just crippled by debt alone and a lot of them are just trying to keep their heads above water,” Yergler said, as he discussed why there is a lack of interest among his peers. One 35-year-old tax resister, who did not want to give her name, believes her tax resistance is a practice shaped over time and that it takes tenacity and a certain amount of financial literacy that may be difficult to muster for some people. Many younger people may be just too overwhelmed by debt to consider the idea of tax resistance as an on-going practice.
But Hersh also sees benefits to beginning resistance at a young age. “Just being in a position in life, which I think is partly related to age, where I can kind of wing it a little bit has been really important to me being able to do tax resistance in the form that I’ve done it,” Hersh said.
Another frequently mentioned roadblock for millennials considering resistance or already practicing it is healthcare. “I hope I stay in really good health until I drop dead,” Hersh said. Since not every state chose to expand access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, resisters attempting to live below the taxable income level may find they do not qualify for free health insurance. Some states require applicants to have both a low income and to meet other qualifications, like having a disability. People who choose not to file taxes are presented with the conundrum of providing proof of income when applying for health insurance in federal or state marketplaces. If they receive insurance through those marketplaces then that information will be reported to the IRS at the end of the year. It is unclear yet what impact these new systems will have on non-filers.
Despite the challenges, resistance to paying for war continues to strike a chord. “Combating militarism and building cultures of peace has always been the driving force of my desires and the work for justice,” Maynard said, who sees war tax resistance as part of his practice to cultivate integrity in his private life. “What happens behind closed doors is sometimes, and I think in most cases, more important than what happens in public. Because in public it’s easy to have a narrative and it’s easy to create a persona.”
Hersh has spent time with Christian Peacemakers Teams as they acted in solidarity with people directly impacted by the U.S. military. “The more that I live into [war tax resistance], it feels less and less morally possible for me to imagine being able to pay into the system that is doing violence against people who I’ve met, and interacted with, and stood with,” Hersh explained.
Time and again resisting millennials speak of the connectedness between issues and how integrating tax resistance into their justice work makes practical sense. Indeed their resistance often allows them to pursue other justice work more wholeheartedly.
“I don’t think just the absence of paying for taxes would feel like enough on its own, and so the structural ways of not paying those taxes
[working part-time to be below the taxable level]
allows me to do more active and engaged peace and justice work,” Hersh said.
Millennials practicing war tax resistance express a need to be conscious of their role in existing systems and how their interaction with those systems creates a more or less just world. “We live in a capitalist society, and we’re always going to be compromised in some way,” Maynard explained. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to at least manage how compromised we are.”
Helping people manage those compromises and learn how to limit their involvement with the financing of war is the work of NWTRCC. Its website includes the history of war tax resistance, the reasoning behind it, practical pamphlets on how to use the tactic, and information on people and organizations that can help individuals at all steps of the process. In 2019 they ran an intensive web-based focus group with activists under 30 years old who were not familiar with tax resistance to learn more about what motivates them to join movements. NWTRCC plans to host another round of focus groups in 2020 before rolling out an outreach plan geared towards younger activists and people of color.
Clearly for many resisters this is a practice that enriches their lives. They emphasize that war tax resistance does not need to be done perpetually — Yergler’s advice is for each person to follow their heart and do what they think is right — but they had trouble seeing any other way forward for themselves. “I do encourage people to try it,” says Maynard. “Mainly because I want people to realize they have a say in this justice work, it’s not passive; you have to take a stand on something.”