Food for Thought: Define “Legitimate”

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

In my early days as a reporter for the Salem (Mass.) News, I covered the Ipswich District Court. Ipswich is a seacoast town famous for its clams. Actually (and keep this in mind as you read what comes next), Ipswich clams don’t necessarily come from Ipswich. The term has to do with the length of the clam’s neck. Ipswich clams have long necks. Clam necks are tough – and not because the clams turn their heads a lot – but for some reason long ones are highly prized.)

Court met once a week. About every fourth week the clam warden (yes, that was a job title thirty-some years ago) hauled in a clam digger, muddy boots, three-pronged rake, and all. No matter when the clammer appeared in court, his case was always called as soon as the case currently before the judge (mostly DUIs, petty theft, and a distinctly Massachusetts crime known as “uttering,” which means passing a bad check) was done.

Clammers spent their working lives bent over, knees flexed, their heads lower than their rumps, digging in the mud. When I was in Ipswich, clams had to be a certain size. Four-tined rakes were not allowed, because they captured clams that were too small. It was the clam warden’s job to see that clammers didn’t take prey that don’t meet the size requirement. (I’m writing in the past tense because I just went looking for photos of a Massachusetts-legal clam rake and it seems the law has loosened considerably, maybe because clams are harder to come by these days. That would make some kind of twisted sense. Make it easier to dig clams because they’re getting rare.)

So the warden and the clammer come up before the judge. “State the charge,” says the clerk of courts to the warden, as if he didn’t know. “Digging in a contaminated area,” says the warden. “How do you plead?” asks the judge. “Guilty, your honor,” says the clammer. Judge bangs his gavel. “Fine is $100,” he says, as if the clammer didn’t know. Clammer digs into his pants pocket, hauls out a roll of bills, peels of a hundred, hands it to the clerk. Exit warden and clammer. “Next case,” says the judge.

The “contaminated area,” lest the fact escape you, is the sewage treatment plant’s outfall area.

One day curiosity demolished restraint (you’re not supposed to walk, let alone run, out of court while it’s in session) and I dashed into the hall to catch up with the clam digger. “I don’t get it,” I said. “You guys keep coming in here and paying a hundred dollars and you go back out and dig in the same place. Why?” “It’s worth it,” the clammer told me. “We can make that much in fifteen minutes. There’s no place else on the flats where we can do that.”

Guess who hasn’t eaten a clam, Ipswich or otherwise, steamed or fried, in the past 35 years.

All this went through my mind when I started hearing about the oystermen in the Gulf who can’t work anymore because BP’s oil has contaminated the area. And while nutrient rich treated sewage makes clams fat and (yes!) luscious, oil makes oysters smelly and inedible.

What I got thinking about was that the folks who harvest oysters probably do business the same way the guys who dig clams did (maybe do – I haven’t been back there for a long time.) For cash. Some of the clammers took their baskets straight to one of Ipswich’s seafood dealers, others to a local restaurant, they got paid on the spot, in cash, and went home to clean up and rest their sore backs.

So when I heard BP CEO Tony Hayward, that poster boy for foot-in-mouth disease, say BP would pay all “legitimate” claims, I started feeling sorry for the oystermen.

Of course it’s possible to keep records of cash income – table servers and and taxi drivers and others whose income depends largely on tips had better do it – but one of the benefits of having a “cash business” is that no IRS agent can prove how much you didn’t pay taxes on.

And one of the disadvantages is that if all you take in is in cash, you can file a tax return so honest it would make Sister Mary Teresa proud of you, but if your number came up for an audit, you’d be in the deep stuff. Some tax agent would come up with a national average income for oyster harvesters, and if your numbers didn’t match up, you’d be getting a bill, with interest and penalties. And then it would be up to you to prove your way out of it.

And I’ve got to wonder how many of those oystermen and shrimpers went home at night, counted the money in their pockets, and opened the ledger and started writing up the day’s receipts. So I began to wonder how they can prove their claims for lost income are “legitimate.”

Turns out I wasn’t far off the mark, either. Talking about Gulf coast seafood workers’ need for emergency payments in a June 8 “Morning Edition” segment, in a model of understatement NPR’s Brian Mann reported,

For a lot of workers along the coast whose business is done mostly in cash, just documenting how much they usually earn will be tough.

The thrust of that piece was that while BP’s Hayward was saying everyone who filed a claim was being paid, those who were filing claims were saying that just wasn’t so.

And then in another piece, there was John Curry, a BP spokesman, saying that

the company has not rejected any of the more than 67,000 claims it has received, although it has asked thousands of people for more documentation before cutting a check.

That could be a problem for many of those who need money most urgently, said Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp. in eastern New Orleans, where many immigrants and their families work in the seafood business.

“It’s a very cash-involved industry. Some of the boat captains or boat owners, they sell fish on the side of the road or directly to families. They don’t have records of that,” Nguyen said.

All this was reported before BP agreed to set up a $20-billion-over-five-years benefit fund for people who depended on the Gulf for their living, before President Obama named Ken Feinberg, he of the 9/11 victims’ fund, to administer payments. Now Feinberg’s been all over the media, explaining the way he intends to work. And he has me worried.

According to a blog put up by a law firm that’s offering to represent economic victims of the Gulf oil spew, Feinberg told Meet the Press,

The shrimper [and apparently other fishermen and oystermen] impacted by the spill will get an emergency payment without any obligation as long as he can demonstrate he’s got a legitimate claim.

Well, in the short term, emergency payments with minimum corroboration, that’s easy. In the longer term, just as with the 911 fund, we’ll have to develop a business interruption methodology. Look, file your claim, give us some information on what you’ve earned in the past, not a lot, not detailed, so that we can, within 30 to 45 days, try and get checks out on business interruption.

Emergency payments, minimum corroboration? That sounds good. Checks within 30 to 45 days? Not so good.

I’ll bet lots of these folks have bills to pay right now and nothing to pay them with. But you can see how it could take that long. Feinberg hasn’t really got his feet under the desk yet, hasn’t had time to hire people and get systems in place.

Then there’s a June 25 Business Week article.

Feinberg said he’ll be poring over profit and loss statements and tax returns from people who claim their businesses have been affected by the spill in an effort to begin distributing payments from the $20 billion escrow account set up by BP Plc.

“I’ll sit with that shrimper, we’ll try to agree on a calculated long-term loss,” Feinberg said. “I’ll offer a check to that shrimper. He can either take it or say, no thank you and litigate.”

Profit and loss statements and tax returns? Not a good sign.

Take it or say, no thank you, I’ll sue BP? Jeeze Louise, people who got hurt by the Exxon Valdez disaster are getting settlements 20 years after – or their heirs are.

I’m not feeling very sanguine about the chances that these cash businesspeople are going to be made whole without considerable pain. Yes, there’s the possibility of filing a late tax return now, but go back and read what I said about the dangers of claiming all-cash income.

Some years I have to pay income taxes, some years I don’t make enough. But I file my tax returns anyway. It’s probably something I inherited from my immigrant grandfather, pride in being a citizen and acting as such.

I don’t like a lot of the things my government spends our tax money for, but I do like some of the things, and I don’t get to earmark my contributions for what I approve of.

That’s probably all to the good. I’m not sure that if we all had the privilege of choosing what our taxes should pay for the people who have more than they know what to do with, and don’t give a rat’s rear end for those who don’t, wouldn’t earmark their taxes for more weapons and more war and stop paying for schools and health care and all the things I value.

What I’m saying is that I’m not in favor of people doing business in cash and not paying taxes and I wish they saw paying taxes the way I do. But when the chips are down, when they don’t have food to put on the table and their kids are growing out of their shoes and one of them has a toothache and the landlord’s at the door and and and….

There has to be a solution that keeps people from suffering because a big oil company chose to skimp on safety, and yet keeps people who play by the rules from feeling like chumps. I don’t know what it is, I’m not that smart. But somebody who is has to look at this the way I am, and not let things fall apart for the Gulf Coast families who live on a cash income.

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2 Responses to “Food for Thought: Define “Legitimate””

  1. found your site on del.icio.us today and really like it. i bookmarked it and will be back to check out some more of your posts later. this one gets to the heart of helping people weather the storm from income loss. they don’t report cash earnings – too poor to even think about giving life to dealing with taxes or even knowing what forms to fill out. i am willing to wager that in many cases, they make so little that if they did report it, they might have found they were eligible for some help!

  2. I’m so pleased to read this. This is the type of manual that needs to be given and not the accidental misinformation that’s at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this greatest doc.

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