Five Surprising Ways Americans Are Progressive On Taxes

With tax day now in the rear view mirror, it’s a good time to review what the public really thinks about taxes. Data collected over many years indicate that the public’s views are surprisingly nuanced and far from the blanket anti-tax stereotype promoted by conservatives. Here are the basic contours of the public’s views.

1. The public is closely divided on whether the amount of federal income tax they pay is too high or about right. Gallup has asked the same question since 1947: “Do you consider the amount of federal income tax you have to pay as too high, about right, or too low?”  In the latest survey (April, 2013), half said their taxes were too high, 45 percent said they were about right and 2 percent said they were too low.  In the previous year’s survey, there were actually slight more who said their taxes were about right (47 percent) than said their taxes were too high (46 percent). Concern about being overtaxed is clearly still an issue in American politics, but it’s hardly overwhelming.

2. Most Americans feel that the income tax they pay is fair. Although many people say their taxes are too high, majorities of Americans in Gallup polling since the late 1990s on generally say that their tax burden is fair.  In April, 2013, 55 percent said their amount of federal income tax they paid was fair, compared to 42 percent who thought it was unfair.

3. But most Americans believe that, overall, the tax system is unfair. Roper polling conducted from the 1970’s to the late 1990’s shows majorities of Americans over this entire period saying that the income tax system is somewhat or quite unfair for most people. Sixty-two percent of likely voters in a 2003 GQR poll said the federal tax system is not fair and only 32 percent said it is fair.  More recently, a 2011 Pew poll found 55 percent saying the federal tax system is not too fair or not fair at all compared to 43 percent who thought the system was moderately or very fair.

4. They believe it’s unfair primarily because the wealthy and corporations aren’t paying their fair share. Gallup polling from April 2013 shows an overwhelming majority of Americans (77 percent) saying lower income people pay either too much (40 percent) or their fair share (37 percent) of taxes.  Even more strongly, 95 percent say middle income people pay either too much (42 percent) or their fair share (53 percent) of taxes.  In contrast, 61 percent believe upper income people pay too little in taxes and 66 percent believe corporations pay too little.

5. As a consequence, there’s strong support for raising taxes on the rich. In recent years, the public has shown overwhelming support for eliminating the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year.  Support has also been lop-sided for Buffet rule taxation (those making a million or more a year should pay at least 30 percent in taxes) and for taxing capital gains income the same as work income.

These data do not make the American taxpayer sound like the tax-hating rebel so dear to the hearts of conservatives like Grover Norquist.  In fact, that taxpayer sounds more like a latent class warrior.  That’s something for progressives to keep in mind moving forward.