Multnomah County Library Relieves Children of Last Remaining Responsibility

No more late fines? Amnesty for all past late fines? It's like a book store where you don't pay!

My first boss in the newspaper business used to tell me that adolescence was a marketing gimmick. In the good ol' days, his theory went, children put away their childish things around the age of 12 or so, and were married with children of their own before attaining the modern age of majority. In his telling, savvy marketers invented the idea of a "transitional phase" as a way of selling pimple cream and circular discs containing rock and/or roll music.

It's worth noting that I worked in the Deep South (Northern Virginia) for a newspaper owned by a former U.S. Senator who abandoned the Democratic party over its support of civil rights.

I didn't listen to the old man then, but damn if I don't see some wisdom to his rants now: The Multnomah County Library has announced that it will no longer charge late fees to anyone under the age of 18, and that any late fees kids have accumulated will henceforth be forgiven. If they flat-out lost the book, they will have to replace it.

The stated goals, certainly, are admirable.

"[L]ate fines are a real barrier that stops children and families from using and benefiting from the resources the public library offers," they say.

This is a good point—the parents who work the hardest and make the least are the most likely to run into trouble returning their books and it's a crime for any kid to be turned away from the library because he or she can't come up with the money to pay fees. They've found that kids in those situations just stop coming to the library.

"This has come too late for me, a mother of 3 children in their later years of childhood," says one commenter who we're all certainly sympathetic to. "If you look at my account history I have paid about $500 in fines over 15 years. I'm a low income mama and didn't buy books but borrowed a huge amount for my voracious readers. Could've used that money on a vacation we never got but in books! Hopes this helps the next generation of low income families…"

But maybe we could just forgive the fees for anyone who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches?

The library says they do not ask users how much money they make while using the library, but that the zip codes with the most blocked library accounts correlate with areas of high poverty.

Or maybe the cut-off should be 12, an age at which a kid could reasonably earn a little scratch to pay off his or her debts?

It's all kids, the library says, and that's that.

But being forced to pay late library fees does have certain benefits for middle-class kids. In many cases, it's the only thing a kid is actually responsible for maintaining and returning in a timely fashion, under penalty of wasted allowance or chore money.

"Our taxes pay for the library. I expect that our taxes are not tossed away by irresponsibility," says another commenter. "Shame on you Multnomah county library. You may have good intentions but this is not a good life lesson."

"What if a parent abuses this policy by exclusively using their children's cards to check out all materials, including adult materials?" writes another. "And what about DVDs?"

What indeed? I could go check out a bunch of DVDs under my toddler's name and keep them forever! If I wanted library DVDs—which I don't.

But, in another way, this situation is the most valuable lesson.

Gather your children around the screen, I'm going to explain a little about how life works.

Multnomah County libraries are already costly—we pay double the national average for them—and our libraries do things like close on Mondays, even when a levy was recently approved. But Portlanders love them, and always will. Ain't nobody in Portland going to vote against books. If the book folks need money, they better just come on up and take it!

But that money comes at a cost to other worthy programs—a phenomenon known as "compression" when discussing local taxes.

As a city economist pointed out back in 2012, because there are limits on total local taxes, the library's new taxing district cost the city of Portland about $9.5 million a year in property taxes.

The biggest hit from the library's cash infusion?

That was identified as the Portland Children's Levy, which funds programs for foster kids, early-education classes and services for kids in potentially abusive homes. Before the measure passed, estimates were that the children's levy would lose $1 million of the $11 million it gets annually.

In other words, the poorest and most vulnerable of children—abused kids and kids in a foster-care system that is deeply fucked up—lost desperately needed program funds to the library.

On the other hand, the library is forgiving their late fines, so those foster kids can read at their own pace and return the books when it's convenient.

Middle-class kids won't pay late fees, either.

And this is how the world works.