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What Do Americans Think About Taxes?

Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where she studies public opinion and demographics, writes about the public’s views of taxes in articles that have also appeared in Tax Notes, which is published by Tax Analysts.

In April 2009, she wrote, “Today, Americans appear comfortable with, or resigned to, the level of federal income taxes they pay . . . Americans are generally skeptical of politicians tax promises, but Democrats have made gains on taxes,” She goes on:

“Americans aren’t very knowledgeable about progressivity, but they have consistent notions of the maximum amount people should pay. 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 may be on the 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 also, 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.”

A year later, on May 24, 2010, she takes a look at how “have attitudes about taxes changes since President Obama took office? The president’s ratings have dropped, and Republicans have gained some ground on the issue. But cutting taxes isn’t a top priority for the public right now. Concerns about the deficit are swelling.” She does say, “Most of what I wrote holds up today.” However, she adds:

“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.”

Take a few minutes, and open the Adobe files to read Ms. Bowman’s complete articles, which she wrote for Tax Notes. They are rich with useful information. Especially interesting is the conclusion in the May 2010 article, where she writes:

“In the last year, attitudes on taxes themselves have changed very little. What has changed is Obama’s standing on the issue. He has clearly lost substantial ground on the perception of his handling of taxes. Whatever the reality, most Americans do not believe their taxes have gone down in the past year. What may be worse from the administration’s point of view, most people expect them to go up in the future. Public concern about the deficit is growing in virtually every poll that asks about it, and Obama is getting some of the lowest marks of his presidency for addressing it. Politicians need to be aware of what Americans are saying about ways to deal with the deficit, although the answers people give do not make solutions obvious.”

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