The public's true voice on tax policy is at best ignored and at worst coaxed to extremes.
If you listen to the media or to candidate talking points, you may be under the impression that Americans hate taxes.
It's true that an anti-tax movement has taken root in the past few years, though this movement seems largely peripheral.
Still, the movement makes for a good media story and is supported by unscientific polling data. These polls purport to show how much Americans hate being taxed. Yet in reality, they really just show how much respondents like the IRS when compared with leading presidential candidates, the Pope or Kanye West.
Politicians seem to have largely bought in to this narrative. Republicans propose tax cuts and promise no new taxes. Democrats often propose only slight income tax hikes on wealthier citizens, and have kept many of the Bush-era tax cuts in place.
The result is that the country misses out on an honest, grounded reckoning about how much public money we ought to collect and how we want to spend it. And the public's true voice on the issue is at best ignored and at worst coaxed to extremes.
So, how do Americans really feel about taxes– about how much they pay, about where their tax money goes, about the tax code and about proposed reforms?
Public opinion polling and qualitative studies on taxes paint a far more nuanced picture than the one we typically see – one that does not show the same partisan gulf and that begs for further engagement and action.
Do people actually hate taxes? Reliable survey research shows that okay, yes, it’s true that around 56 percent of Americans say that actually sitting around and filing their taxes isn’t a chore they enjoy, but not because they are morally opposed to taxes or the IRS. They find taxes to be complicated and filing too time-consuming.
But many people are mostly okay with how much they are taxed. A 2015 Pew Research poll found that just over half (54 percent) of Americans said they pay the right amount in taxes, considering what they get from the federal government. Pew found a partisan divide, but even 48 percent of Republicans said they pay the right amount, same as the percent who felt they paid too much; and 60 percent of Democrats said they pay the right amount.
There is mounting evidence that the public is increasingly fed up with how much others are paying, or not paying, in taxes. In another 2015 survey, Pew found that over 6 in 10 Americans say they are bothered “a lot” by the feeling that the wealthiest and large corporations don’t pay their fair share in taxes.
In our own research, we have found strong support for tax reform and dissatisfaction with the tax status quo. In our 2015 survey of New York metro area residents regarding their top policy concerns, we found that 70 percent of our respondents mostly favor raising taxes on the wealthiest citizens and on large corporations.
In qualitative research we're currently conducting with the Kettering Foundation on the public’s perceptions of inequality, we have heard people make the same case. They recognize that slashes to government funding of schools, infrastructure and even unemployment programs are a serious problem, and a shortfall of tax dollars might be one place to look. One focus group participant told us, “I think if the rich can afford to give more, they should. I think everyone should pay their fair share according to what you make and what you can contribute to making this world better. They have a lot of means to do it, and I feel that they should be taxed accordingly.”
In fact, the public might even be willing to pay more taxes themselves, especially if they see that their tax dollars are being spent on improving schools, infrastructure or other programs. Experts have pointed out that when referendums to raise taxes have ended up on state ballots in recent years, voters have approved about half of those measures. And support is higher when voters have a sense that they know where their tax money is going. As one focus group participant told us, “If you’re going to raise the taxes, that’s great. If you’re going to use it for the right purpose.”