Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Bad Example of Public Policy

I'm close to finishing the book A Midwife's Tale, which won a Pulitzer Prize back in 1991. It's a popular history, based on the life and diary of Martha Moore Ballard from 1785 to 1812 in eastern Maine. Ballard was, as the title says, a midwife. Her diary was long known to historians but was discounted as dry and lacking details until feminist historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich got ahold of it.

The book is mostly a social history of women-oriented topics, obviously, though it's as much about women's work in the home and social conditions generally as it about helping women have babies. But near the end, there's a disturbing detail about how the local municipalities were run that doesn't have anything to do with women.

Martha's husband, Ephraim, is 10 years older than her. By 1803, she is almost 70 and he is nearly 80. He has spent his career as a surveyor, working for all of the landed men in the area who want to measure parcels to sell and plat towns to build. But Ephraim, it turns out, has had a side job all along: he is also the town tax collector.

I've never thought much about how tax collection happens now, and probably less in past times. In Maine, c. 1800, this is how it was:
[Ephraim] had signed a note binding [him] to collect $4,550, the town's combined total tax bill for the year 1803. Although he had worked hard at collecting..., and had turned in his proceeds to the town treasurer every two months as the law required, his accounting on November 17 had fallen short by $800. The town had no choice but to imprison him.... No sentimental regard for the man's age or for his years of service could abrogate the law. He would be treated like other debtors (page 266).
Debtors in the town jail were not the same as felons; they could come and go to pursue their work and even eat their meals, but they couldn't go as far as their homes (unless that was near by, which Ephraim's was not). This left Martha, 70ish -- all of her children grown and with families of their own -- without a man to chop wood and do the other work customarily done by a man. This is a woman who has borne nine children herself, and who is in declining health of an unmentionable female nature, so her stress over all of the added work comes up in her diary.

But I have to say: What a stupid public policy. You take a job like tax collector, which generally isn't perceived positively in the first place, and outsource it with the penalty of prison if it's not done correctly. What a way to get someone to do the job. What a way to run a state!

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