Business as Usual

By:  George Packer

Jenny Brown started working for the Internal Revenue Service right out of high school, in 1985, typing numbers from tax returns into a computer. Her home town, of Ogden, Utah, has not only a large I.R.S. facility but an Air Force base, Hill Field, where Brown’s father worked as a civilian. Her stepfather and her late sister used to work at the base; a brother, a son, and a nephew work there now. Her other son is with the Army in Afghanistan, and two other nephews are in the Air Force. “We’re really just a government family,” Brown said last week, on the second-to-last day of the shutdown. And Ogden is a government town, with twenty-four thousand federal employees. Brown grew up with the belief that a government job was secure, well-paying, and honorable, but, when she told her new doctor recently that she works for the I.R.S., he replied, in all seriousness, “Do you need a prescription for Xanax, or some kind of stress reducer?”

In fact, a lot of Brown’s colleagues, in Ogden and around the country, are taking pills for stress. They haven’t had a raise in three years. Every I.R.S. employee lost three days of pay last summer, owing to furloughs brought on by the blind budget cutting known as sequestration, and during the shutdown ninety per cent of the agency’s employees were sent home without pay. Many of them now live paycheck to paycheck, and some had to turn to food banks during the sixteen days of the shutdown, while the charity at the Ogden local of the National Treasury Employees Union (Brown is the president of Chapter 67) ran low on supplies. Nationally, the agency’s workforce has been cut by almost twenty-five per cent in the past two decades, while the number of individual tax returns filed has grown by an even larger figure.

With the extra workload, face-to-face audits have dropped by half since 1992, as have the odds of being convicted for a tax crime. Frank Clemente, the director of Americans for Tax Fairness, says, “When the I.R.S. doesn’t have the money to do its job, it’s easier for wealthy people and big corporations to cheat the system, especially by hiding profits offshore.” For every dollar added to the I.R.S. budget, the agency is able to collect at least seven dollars in revenue, but in times of austerity that money doesn’t come in—which means that, in recent years, the Treasury has lost billions in taxes, starving government services and increasing the deficit. Another result, Jenny Brown pointed out, is that wait times at the Ogden call center have risen from ten or fifteen minutes a few years ago to an hour or more today. “By the time they get the I.R.S. on the phone, they’re frustrated, and they vent awhile, which takes up more time,” she said.

Worst of all is the hostility that Brown senses toward government employees in general, but especially those at the I.R.S. She’s learned not to mention her job to strangers, sparing herself the rude comebacks. “On Facebook, my colleagues don’t put anything where it asks where you work,” Brown said. Instead, they write, “If you know me, you know where I work”—as if they were employed at a pet crematory, or a strip club. “Morale is horrible. People are looking for a way to get out of the government.” After twenty-eight years on the job, she wouldn’t dream of recommending federal employment to anyone.

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