Goodbye, tax-free weekend

Aug. 03, 2013 @ 11:33 AM

“Huh? This is the last tax-free weekend for school stuff?” my daughter asked this morning. “I thought the guys in charge were against taxes?  Why would they cancel our weekend without taxes?” 

We do live in confusing times.

Getting ready for tax holiday weekend has been a ritual for my girls.  We’ve made a wish-list in addition to the must-list for back-to-school.  The official supply roster arrives in the mail the week before, and we clear several hours to bargain shop.  The plan includes not only the basics – spirals, pencils, the (increasingly complicated and expensive) calculator for math class – but also a few new outfits.  On my youngest daughter’s list this year is a trendy, asymmetrical skirt, longer in the back than the front.  She’s aged out of sneakers that sparkle as she steps, and is entering the world of tween moxie. 

Now, I realize that a brand-new outfit is not strictly necessary.  Unlike the pink eraser and bottle of glue, that skirt is not essential.  But shopping for fashion whimsy is a way we’ve celebrated the gift of a new year together.  The amount we save on tax-free weekend contributes not only dollars and cents to our home budget, but to our sense that the men and women who make our laws have such details of life in mind.

The same goes for ballet and tap shoes, baseball gloves, shin guards and ice skates – a few of the things on the North Carolina tax-exempt holiday weekend list under “recreational equipment.”  Recreation is not technically, absolutely crucial for the basic, daily survival of children and teenagers, but the word “recreation” itself puts the matter well.  Football, ballet and ice skating are, at their best, re-creating and revitalizing for individual children, and for families and neighborhoods across this state.  North Carolina’s tax-exempt weekend has been a concrete way to note that recreation is good for actual children we know, and that stuff like special shoes and gloves and guards make up the rhythm of a yearly sports season.  It has been a way for lawmakers to show everyone that they do know a fact of a flourishing state:  We don’t thrive on math alone.

Of course, a few of my mom friends have assiduously avoided tax-free weekend.  They are cushioned from the harshest effects of the current economy, and the extra dollars saved seem not worth the extra time cheek to cheek in the check-out line.  But the tax holiday has had a different feel from the squish-or-be-squished Friday-after-Thanksgiving frenzy.  It has been a chance for me to meet children and parents while picking out a lunchbox or trying out awkward new soccer cleats.  It has been an annual way for people in my little corner of North Carolina to acknowledge together that we are cutting coupons and pinching pennies to buy the bits and pieces that make up a school year, because the children in our homes and schools and neighborhoods matter. 

The legislators who voted to drop North Carolina’s tax-free weekend missed out on a simple way to show they understand how actual parents of real boys and girls across our state budget and bond.  It is their loss, and ours.

Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.