Next time you think your job sucks, think of the guy dressed in a Statue of Liberty costume, doing a sad dance by the side of the road, holding a sign encouraging you to take your income tax forms to KwikeeTax or something.
You’ve seen these poor souls, right? They usually look pretty beaten down. And they start turning up in high-traffic areas near low-end shopping centers right around the time you get your W2s. They’re almost always men, and they’re almost always wearing a full-length green robe and a matching foam rubber tiara, waving a toy version of liberty’s torch at passersby.
Human signage, of course, isn’t limited to tax season. On a busy winter Saturday, Little Caesars Pizza wants you to know you can get two pies for 10 bucks. But Little Caesars can’t put up a sign saying that. It’s against all kinds of zoning laws. You can’t just stick a sign in the grass next to the sidewalk. We have standards, y’know.
But behold! A loophole: live human beings are not zoning violations. So Little Caesars hires a warm-blooded adult at minimum wage to stand there on the sidewalk all day, holding a sign that says “Two Pies for 10 Bucks.”
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Little Caesars hires a temp agency who then hires the out-of-work American to stand there all day with the sign. The minimum wage in Maryland is $7.25 per hour. And temp agencies typically charge twice the wage they pay. So at the end of a humiliating, exhausting, cold day of standing next to a ridiculously busy street acting as a human zoning variance, you’ll earn about 58 bucks. And you’ll likely take home about 50 of that.
But Lady Liberty doubles down on that indignity. It’s not enough to make you stand there in your regular clothes all day. You have to wear a fucking money-green dress and a foam rubber tiara.
What’s the Statue of Liberty supposed to mean in this context, anyway? Is it just a catch-all symbol of the federal government? Wouldn’t it make more sense to dress the poor guy like Uncle Sam? At least let him wear an eagle suit.
It turns out, if we look closer, the guy in the dress doing the funny dance isn’t the only working person getting screwed here.
Millions of paycheck-to-paycheck Americans have purchased loans—or “instant refunds”—against their tax refunds this year. For the privilege of walking out of Kwikee Tax with 300 bucks in cash, they’ll sign a promise note of, sometimes, hundreds more.
The business proposition of these instant tax places is diabolical genius: in addition to having no money, people who live in poverty often have no understanding about money.
Think how you filed your taxes this year. You probably used some kind of TurboTax thing that walked you through your W2 and helped you file online. It cost you a few bucks. Maybe your tax situation was a little complicated. Job changes, marriages, divorces, home purchases … on and on. “Good thing TurboTax does all the work for me.”
Now imagine you don’t have Internet service or a computer that works very well. You got laid off this year. You filed for unemployment insurance. You don’t have a checking account. You pay your rent and your car loan in cash. For a lot of Americans, a W2 can be a terrifying thing. “Good thing I can trust the tax place with the guy in the dress.”
Notice there aren’t any signs outside Kwikee Tax screaming, “We’ll do your taxes! 100 bucks!” No figures are discussed. Why? Because the goal is to hose the American working poor out of as much of their hard-earned tax refunds as possible.
Let’s say we’re somehow swayed by this sad man in the green dress. We decide to visit this establishment for some help with our taxes. They’ll charge us to prepare our taxes, they’ll charge us to file our taxes, and they’ll try like hell to sell us a high-interest loan.
Walk in with paperwork indicating the government owes you $1,000. Walk out with $300 and a bill for $700.
A guy in a dumb outfit doing a funny dance is no place to get tax advice.
—Photo AP/Jim Cole