How would you answer this simple question: “Do you consider the amount of federal income tax you pay as too high, about right, or too low?” Today, people divide their responses between the “too high” and “about right” answers. Hardly anyone ever says their federal taxes are “too low.”
Pollsters watch responses to this question closely, and it has a long history. Gallup first asked taxpayers about it in the 1940s. For most of its history, large majorities have told the pollsters that their federal income taxes are too high. Take the year 1985 when the White House and Congress were gearing up to move a major tax overhaul forward. Sixty-three percent told Gallup their federal income taxes were too high and a third said they were about right. But those sentiments started to change around 2000. In Gallup’s latest, 50 percent said they were too high and 45 percent about right.
Now think about how you would answer this question: “We’d like to know how you feel about the state of the nation in each of the following areas. For each one, please say whether you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied with it. How about the amount Americans pay in federal taxes?” If you are like most Americans, you are dissatisfied. Sixty percent gave that response to Gallup in January, while 38 percent said they were satisfied.
So which answer should we believe—is there relative satisfaction or deep dissatisfaction with the taxes we pay? We put more emphasis on what people say about their own personal situations which they know well. Their relative satisfaction with their federal taxes helps to explain why tax reform doesn’t rank high as an issue Americans want the President and Congress to address. Pew asked about it in January and 55 percent thought tax reform should be a top priority. The issue ranked ninth of 20 issues Pew researchers asked about. The leading response was the economy which 80 percent said should be a top priority.
It’s also possible that Americans have become inured to the federal income taxes they pay so they don’t get too upset about them. They don’t see them ever going down much, so they just accept them as a fact of life. Today many people are using tax preparers and commercial products to do their taxes, so the actual process of doing taxes may not seem as onerous and baffling as it once did. Only 33 percent of Americans told Pew in April 2013 that they were preparing their own taxes, while 56 percent said “someone else” was preparing their returns. Still another possible explanation for the lower level of dissatisfaction with federal income taxes could come from the fact that significant numbers of people have no federal income tax liability.
Americans no longer believe politicians’ promises on federal taxes anymore, regardless of whether they come from Democrats or Republicans. In August 2009, Fox News asked registered voters whether President Obama was going to be able to keep the promise candidate Obama made that 95 percent of Americans would “not see their taxes increase by a single dime.” Sixty-nine percent said he couldn’t keep it.
Only a small number of Americans enjoy doing their taxes. For most of the rest of us, it seems, doing taxes is just one of those things in life we can’t avoid. We’re not happy about it, but we’re not going to the barricades either. We don’t expect our federal taxes to be cut, but we don’t want them to get any higher. We think Americans as a whole pay too much, but we’re largely satisfied with the level of taxes we ourselves pay. This equivocation stems from deep doubts that politicians will ever change the situation for the better.