Don't tax my syntax!

Artists, writers and taxes: Another Philadelphia story

2 minute read
Gianni Strino's 'La Lettera': Must I do this downtown?'
Gianni Strino's 'La Lettera': Must I do this downtown?'
Before I moved to Philadelphia, I'd heard about the city wage tax (almost 4%) and I was ready for it. Just another price you pay to live in a dynamic city, I told myself.

Then, last summer, I finished writing my first novel. Like most first novels, this had been a labor of love, but now it was time to seek an agent. In the meantime, I was offered some free-lance writing gigs. I'd heard rumors about a business license requirement for free-lancers in Philadelphia, so I set up an appointment with SCORE-Philadelphia (a small business counseling organization) to find out more.

The rumors I'd heard were true: In Philadelphia, free-lance writers and artists must obtain a $300 Business Privilege License and, consequently, pay taxes as a business. The logic is that a self-employed individual operates as a mini-business. Fair enough.

Token fees

Or not. Only a small percentage of writers are able to survive from writing alone. Many literary journals (not to mention Broad Street Review) pay a token fee if anything. It takes talent, tenacity and luck to get a short story placed at all, let alone to get a novel published.

The market for nonfiction articles is somewhat more generous, but similarly chancy. I might easily have earned less in the course of a year than the $300 I paid for my business license.

In most places, the saving grace of a writing career is that the startup costs for projects are minimal, and you can do your work anywhere—on your lunch break, at the dining room table, on the subway. Too bad for you if that dining room table is within city limits, though. According to the same rules (at least as I understand them), anyone living in Philadelphia who sells handcrafts, does a little handiwork on the side, or even holds a garage sale must buy a Business Privilege License. This requirement seems to discourage innovation and resourcefulness— two qualities that are invaluable in a recession.

Grammar police?

In its original concept, a license implied some qualification. A shoddy handyman or a drunken cab driver, say, ought to lose his license to do business. But the Business Privilege License is simply a revenue-raising device. It implies that there's a benefit to doing business in the city— as surely there is, if you're a grocery or a couturier. But the city isn't about to take away my license for faulty grammar or syntax, and I enjoy no particular benefit if my dining room table is located this side of the city line.

I'm still writing at my dining room table. But for reasons of principle as well as finance, I now do it in Vermont.

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