Why we hate taxes (it's not what you think)

Dec. 20, 2011 at 4:11 PM ET

Updated at 3:15 p.m. PT

Americans are growing increasingly frustrated with our country’s Byzantine federal tax system, but not because we feel overtaxed.

Most Americans believe the biggest problem with taxes is that wealthy people don’t pay their fair share, according to poll results published Tuesday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The feeling of outrage over the privileged classes is growing, according to the poll results, which only confirm the widespread anger that has helped fuel this fall's Occupy protests on Wall Street and nationwide.

Pew Research Center /

Only a minority of Americans seem at all outraged by the taxes they pay themselves.

Among those surveyed, only 38 percent said they pay more than their “fair share” in federal taxes, compared with 55 percent who answered affirmatively in a similar 2000 poll. By contrast 52 percent said they pay “about the right amount” in taxes, up from 41 percent in 2003.

When asked what bothers them most about the federal tax system, only 11 percent cited the amount they pay in taxes. An overwhelming 57 percent cited the perception that wealthy people don’t pay their fare share, while 28 percent chose the complexity of the tax system.

Public opinion on taxes shifted rather sharply about a decade ago, perhaps in response to two big rounds of tax cuts passed during the George W. Bush administration. In 2001 65 percent of Americans said their taxes were too high, but that fell to 50 percent by 2003 and has stayed near that level, according to an annual Gallup poll on the topic.

Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, said he found the latest results striking.

"We are in an era when public dissatisfaction with government is at an all-time high, yet there is actually less resentment about what people are paying in taxes than what people had a decade ago, when the government was viewed much more positively," he said.

The view of the tax system differs starkly depending on political affiliation.

Among Republicans, the complexity of the system was cited as the biggest problem, with only 38 percent saying wealthy people don’t pay their fair share. Among Democrats, 73 percent cited the fairness issue as the No. 1 problem.

Yet Republicans are no more likely than Democrats to say they pay more than their fair share in taxes. A Pew poll last month found that 53 percent of Republicans favored attacking the deficit through a combination of both tax hikes and cuts in federal programs, unlike the more uniform anti-tax view expressed by Republican political leaders.

"I think there is more diversity of opinion among Republicans in this issue than some people might imagine," Dimock said.

The survey of a nationwide sample of 1,500 adults was conducted this month and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. Click here to see full results.


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