What Do Americans Think about Taxes? An Update

In an On the Margin column last year, I summarized public attitudes about taxes this way:

Today Americans seem relatively comfortable with, or perhaps resigned to, the level of federal income taxes they pay. They see their federal tax burden as high but fair. Americans aren't very knowledgeable about progressivity, but they have consistent notions of the maximum amount people should pay in taxes. Trend questions provide little evidence that Americans are more concerned about inequality than they were in the late 1970s, although a few recent questions suggest that concern about it may rise. At this early stage in his presidency, Americans, although deeply skeptical of politicians' tax promises, have high hopes that President Obama will deliver a middle-income tax cut. The political coloration of the issue has changed, too, and the antitax banner Republicans unfurled in the late 1970s and early 1980s is now tattered. Democrats have made gains on the tax issue as the Republican Party has become less popular. Finally, the political urgency of the tax issue has diminished.[1]

Most of what I wrote holds up today.[2] In an early April 2010 poll, 48 percent of those surveyed told Gallup interviewers that their federal income taxes were too high, but almost as many, 45 percent, said they were about right. In response to a slightly different question in March, 50 percent told Pew Research Center interviewers that they paid about the right amount "considering what you get from the federal government," with 43 percent saying they paid too much.

There has also been little or no change in perceptions of fairness. Sixty-two percent told CBS News/The New York Times interviewers in early April 2010 that they regarded the income tax they would pay this year as fair. Even 52 percent of self-identified tea party supporters gave that response. Few pollsters ask questions about progressivity, but in a Rasmussen poll from April, 75 percent said the average American should pay no more than 20 percent of his income in total taxes, a figure roughly in line with other surveys on the subject. There is little evidence that concern about inequality is growing, but that is not a subject pollsters take up very often.

The changes we have seen in tax attitudes in the past year involve Obama and the Republicans. Concern about the deficit has risen, which has affected attitudes toward potential tax changes that might be made to address it.

This article is available as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Notes

  1. "What Do Americans Think About Taxes?" Tax Notes, Apr. 6, 2009, p. 99, Doc 2009-6493, 2009 TNT 64-15.

  2. All the polls cited in this article are available from the author. Most of them are also available from the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, the largest survey archive in the country.

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