Taxes

More Americans think Uncle Sam unfair on taxes

April 15, 2013 at 11:31 AM ET

Americans’ faith in the fairness of their taxes has slipped to its lowest level in more than a decade, according to a new survey released Monday, the deadline for most Americans to file their returns.

Overall, 55 percent of Americans think their taxes are fair, according to the Gallup survey. That’s the lowest rate since 2001, the polling company said.

The bulk of the decline comes from people who identify themselves as conservative Republicans, whose perception of the tax code's fairness has slipped.

Surprisingly, the fairness question is generally consistent among both the rich and poor. The difference comes down to politics, according to Gallup's Economy and Personal Finance poll.

Only 49 percent of Republicans currently think their taxes are fair, compared with 66 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Independents. Among people who identify themselves as liberals, 70 percent think their taxes are fair, compared with 59 percent of moderates and 45 percent of conservatives.

In the past decade, party parity was closest in 2003, which Gallup pollsters linked to tax cuts signed by President George W. Bush shortly after the start of the Iraq war. In 2003, 64 percent of Americans said their taxes were fair, including 66 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans.

The Gallup pollsters note that taxes haven’t actually gone up for most Americans since then; the survey measures perception. And 64 percent of Americans think their taxes will probably rise in the next 12 months. Gallup has asked that question sporadically over the years and the only time it’s been higher was December 1977.

In 1943 Gallup first asked Americans if they thought their taxes were fair. An average of 87 percent of Americans said their taxes were fair, right up until World War II ended. By 1946, the average dropped to 61 percent. Gallup stopped asking the question until the late 1990s, and then hit the low point in 1999 when only 45 percent of Americans said their taxes were fair.

Charlotte Crane, a professor specializing in tax law at the Northwestern University School of Law, said a lot of factors come into play when considering the perception of fairness. 

One element is whether people feel control over how their taxes are spent and whether those expenditures are popular with the public, Crane said. Another reason for the decline could be with the perceived lack of transparency of who pays what and if everyone’s income is calculated equally. 

And indeed, wartime can lead to fewer complaints. 

“When it’s a popular war, as definitely World War II was, you don’t hear as much grousing,” said Crane, who is not affilited with the Gallup report.

The telephone poll was conducted from April 4 through 7 with a random sample of 1,005 adults in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Respondents were asked a series of questions including “Do you regard the income tax which you will have to pay this year as fair?” The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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