Philadelphia’s Proposed New Soda Tax Would Help Schools, So What’s the Problem?

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, April 13, 2016

Philadelphia’s city council is considering a bill that would increase taxes on sugary drinks in order to fund pre-K programs. According to the mayor, the city will have to go without universal pre-K programs and recreation centers if the bill is not approved.

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Philadelphia’s school district is perpetually underfunded, which takes a toll on student achievement and individual students’ opportunity to succeed. The tax would probably lead to a decrease in soda consumption, which is good for public health but bad for the factory workers who produce the sugary drinks.

A Difficult Question

Representing these workers, the Teamsters have spoken out against the tax, claiming that an increase in the cost of soda would lead to layoffs in these factories, and make the drinks more difficult for consumers to afford. It’s a difficult question.

Should a city risk the jobs of some of its workers in favor of providing education for many of its children? Moreover, does the government have the right to interfere with consumer preferences?

Necessary Growing Pains

The truth is, a higher price for soda will probably lead to fewer factory jobs in soda plants. However, these are necessary growing pains in the process of making society incrementally stronger. An analogous example is the past two decades’ debate over the cigarette tax. As cigarettes have becoming increasingly taxed, there are fewer jobs producing tobacco products, yet society as a whole is healthier..

The soda tax is representative of the fundamental question about what government is supposed to do, and to what extent it should be allowed to regulate consumer preferences. In this case, sugary drinks, like cigarettes, are detrimental to the personal and public health of the city’s residents. Some view a city government’s decision to tax soda as paternalistic and invasive. What right does the government have to tell citizens what to drink, after all? Policies like this, however, do not interfere with one’s ability to buy soda or cigarettes. They simply place a monetary value on the long-term societal impact of one’s decision to do so.

A City’s Obligation

The role of government is to intervene when people acting out of their own self interest gets in the way of what’s good for the community as a whole. Citizens should have the right to consume these products if they choose. However, given that soda consumption contributes to obesity, and obesity is expensive to society, they should have to pay a bit more to compensate.

Soda consumption has a net negative impact on a city’s population, but people will buy it anyway. Pre-K programs have a net positive impact on society, but they are strapped for cash. Taxing something that’s harmful in order to fund something that’s advantageous to citizens as a whole is an elegant, and time-honored solution.

Philadelphia’s preschools are severely underfunded, and there appears to be no alternate source of revenue available to support them. Given that pre-school has been shown to give students, particularly in low-income urban areas, a leg up, it is the city’s obligation to do its very best to provide pre-K opportunities for families who can’t afford private programs.

Contact Kacy: kmartin@msu.edu

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.