Polls indicate Americans are less infected with anti-tax fever this year

Tax Facts

Every so often it’s useful to turn around the political megaphone and let voters speak.

That’s especially true when it comes to taxes. We’ve had an earful of tax talk from candidates, much of it presuming to tell us what voters want.

Now, a couple of recent polls give us a reality check on the rhetoric.

Despite all of the animosity aimed at government this year, Americans are not as infected with anti-tax fever as they were a few years ago, according to polling results from the Pew Research Center.

Source: Pew Research Center

Closer to home, another poll found that even a good share of Republicans say it’s time to bring more revenue into state coffers via the income or sales tax.

In this fourth article of MinnPost’s series on taxes, we will explore these findings.

Finding the balance
To balance Minnesota’s budget, two-thirds of likely voters prefer tax increases over cuts in transportation, health care and city services, according to a Minnesota Public Radio News/Humphrey Institute poll [PDF] conducted between Aug. 25-29.

And more of them (45 percent) said they preferred raising taxes on the affluent over expanding sales taxes to clothing (favored by 22 percent).

Most Minnesota readers already know this political background and can skip to the next paragraph: Increasing state income taxes on the highest earners is the centerpiece of the fiscal proposals put forth by Mark Dayton, the DFL gubernatorial candidate. Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate proposes to expand the sales tax. Tom Emmer, the GOP candidate, proposes no tax increases, but a range of analysts have said his proposed cuts in aid to local governments would have the effect of driving up property taxes.  

One interesting finding in the MPR/Humphrey poll is that one-fourth of Republicans — even one-fifth of the Minnesotans who identified themselves as Emmer supporters — favor increasing taxes on the more affluent. As for independents, 54 percent supported that move.

An additional fifth of Emmer voters and Republicans supported broadening the sales tax.

Of course, that means that a substantial majority of Republicans in Minnesota favored neither form of tax increase. And many of them hold the position with enough intensity to influence the races.

Getting your money’s worth
Exactly half of those polled in the nationwide Pew survey said they pay about the right amount of taxes considering what they get from the federal government. That’s up from 45 percent in a similar poll conducted in 1997.

What’s more, 3 percent of the people Pew polled this year said they are paying less than their fair share of taxes.

In other words, 53 percent had no beef with the tax levels. That compares with 43 percent who said they pay more than their fair share.

Here’s the surprise: Republicans (47 percent) and Independents (49 percent) were almost as willing as Democrats (55 percent) to say they pay their fair share in taxes considering what they get in return.

And a slender majority (52 percent) of those who expressed frustration with government said the same thing.

The notable exception was Tea Party sympathizers. Just 41 percent of those who said they agree with the Tea Party’s agenda also said they pay the right amount of taxes.

Pew’s Sept. 20 report on attitudes toward taxation was based on national surveys conducted in March and September this year.

Taxing the wealthy
One finding in the Pew report speaks directly to a point of political division in Minnesota this year: Should the wealthy pay more taxes?

President Barack Obama
REUTERS/Bob Strong
President Barack Obama

On the national level, President Barack Obama and most Democrats (with a few notable exceptions in Congress) favor repealing the Bush tax cuts for top income earners but renewing them for middle-class and low-income Americans.

About one in three (29 percent) of those asked in the Pew poll said the Bush tax cuts should be repealed for the wealthy but preserved for everyone else. Another 28 percent said they should be repealed for everyone. Just 29 percent favored keeping the cuts for everyone, including the top earners.

A USA Today/Gallup poll also found that a solid majority of Americans favor letting tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration expire for the wealthy. Just 37 percent of those polled by Gallup wanted the cuts kept in place for everyone. Gallup’s nationwide poll was conducted Aug. 27-30.

Turned a corner on taxes
The pollsters don’t speculate what’s driving this broader acceptance of taxation. I’m guessing it’s a concern for the deficit. But deficit hawks were sounding alarms in the late 1980s and early ’90s, too. And Americans said they were taxed “too high” by roughly a two-to-one-margin from the early ’60s to the early ’90s, the Pew Report said.

“Roughly two-thirds of Americans said in polls they were taxes too highly during the administrations of (presidents) Nixon, Reagan and Clinton,” Pew said. 

Of course, Pew points out, “just because most Americans are good with their current tax rate doesn’t mean they would turn down another tax cut or encourage an increase.”

In March 2009, at the outset of the Obama administration, fully 82 percent said it is the right thing for the government to reduce taxes for middle- and lower-income households.

Sharon Schmickle covers science, the economy, international affairs and other subjects. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/23/2010 - 09:20 am.

    This isn’t surprising, since most people don’t pay any income taxes at all. I hope the 3% who say they’re paying less than their fair share include those millions who pay nothing.

    That’ll change January 1st though. It’s also not surprising that 45% of the people suggest raising taxes … on the other guy.

    Tortured long enough, data can be forced to admit to anything.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/23/2010 - 11:19 am.

    WOW! Now my state representative and “taxing T. Clark” can freely run on the “tax and spend” agenda rather than covering it up with code words.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/23/2010 - 11:32 am.

    Hmmm. Interesting piece, Sharon.

    If Mr. Tester is correct, and “most people” don’t pay any income taxes at all, the population is apparently largely made up of people too poor to pay those taxes, or so wealthy they can afford the necessary lawyers to use all the available tax dodges. Since I’m not too poor to pay income taxes, I guess at least part of my resentment should be directed at the idle rich. The poor often pay substantial amounts in sales and payroll taxes, while the wealthy… well, they have the Cayman Islands and the cost of all those tax lawyers. It’s also interesting to try to figure out how this situation will improve after January 1st, when – if right wing wet dreams come true – tax and spending cuts across the board will be instituted everywhere.

    Complaining that most people don’t pay taxes now, but insisting that we should vote for candidates whose primary campaign themes include further tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, doesn’t strike me as a sensible position in terms of either electoral politics or public policy.

    Actually, as an old guy on a (fully taxable) pension, it’s not the level of federal taxation I object to so much, though the money is often spent on stuff I’d never vote for if I were in Congress, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, corporate subsidies, abstinence programs, etc. – a big reason why I won’t ever have to worry about being in Congress – what hits harder are state taxes, and especially local taxes from the county and the city.

    Those often depend on factors mostly or entirely out of the control of state and local government entities, such as the value of the local economy, natural resources available, etc. While the degree to which those things are taxed IS locally controlled, for the most part, decisions at the federal level (e.g., a tax cut) can have profound effects that are, once again, beyond the control of local entities. If we want paved streets and clean water, and we don’t want to pay the Feds to do it, and don’t want to pay the state to do it, someone else has to pick up the slack. I can’t afford to individually pay for paved streets and/or clean water for the entire community.

    There ain’t no free lunch, and there aren’t any viable civilized/industrial societies where you only pay for the stuff you use yourself.

  4. Submitted by Paul Scott on 09/23/2010 - 11:38 am.

    You know, its kind of cheap, Dennis, to lob a slur at such a well reported article without giving any examples of how the data have been “tortured.” I think you don’t like the message.

  5. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/23/2010 - 12:30 pm.

    “most people don’t pay any income tax at all”?? Say what? I’m sorry, Dennis, but you’re going to have to back that up with some objective data. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t pay income tax. Of course, I’m only middle class, so I’m not in the tax shelter crowd.

    You’re right about the torture part, but your comment makes me wonder who’s doing the torturing.

  6. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 09/23/2010 - 12:35 pm.

    Real fast there to the draw on that one, are we Dennis?

    And funny, I’ve never heard of “tortured” data before. Is that like the missing WMD in Iraq? And the truth will not change in January however much we contort ourselves.

    BTW … those millions that you say probably belong in the 3% and don’t even pay taxes probably don’t even have phones, are unemployed, are bankrupt, have lost their homes to foreclosure, and are homeless right now. So, would you like to see them taxed now? But, wait I thought you were anti-tax. I’m confused … I give up.

  7. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/23/2010 - 12:38 pm.

    Of course they say tax “the other guy.” The other guy–the wealthiest among us–are not paying their fair share although they are most able to.
    Many of the people who don’t pay taxes are the poorest among us–and that number is growing, which is why the state budget is even deeper in the hole,since job losses and underemployment are causing more people to lose their health care insurance..

  8. Submitted by Sharon Schmickle on 09/23/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    It’s true that fewer and fewer Americans actually pay income taxes thanks to legal deductions and assorted credits we can get for everything from having children to installing energy-efficient windows.

    About one in three filers for the 2008 tax year were non payers. They filed to reclaim every dollar that was withheld from their paychecks for the year.

    My April 15th story on that subject is here http://www.minnpost.com/stories/2010/04/15/17378/an_inconvenient_tax_truth_weve_had_plenty_of_tax_cuts
    Thanks for the comments.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/23/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    The people who designed the current, unsustainable tax system promised us that lower marginal rates, and lower taxes on capital and dividends, would boost the economy, promote investment, create jobs, spur market performance, and raise everybody’s income. They were wrong. It’s no coincidence that these same people also warned us that raising taxes in 1993 would kill market returns and the economy. They were wrong then, too. They’re pretty much always wrong. The years under the current tax regime have been a lost decade. Pick your metric—median income, employment, stock market returns, economic growth—the low-tax ’00s sucked. Yet proponents of keeping the Bush tax cuts persist in making the argument: To avoid a repeat of the past decade, we must have the exact same tax policies as we did for the past decade.

  10. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 09/23/2010 - 12:47 pm.


    You speculate on what’s driving this acceptance of higher taxes as being about the deficit. However, I would like to speculate that some of it may just be people who have family members or friends who have lost jobs, lost benefits and lost homes who have come to see that taxes actually do do some good in the form of unemployment benefits, MN Care and rent subsidies.

  11. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 09/23/2010 - 12:56 pm.

    The thing that stands out in the chart; your good feelings about the amount of taxes you pay lessens as the amount of taxes you pay go up (see $75,000 and up category). No surprise to anyone…but those reading the headline to this article.

    It is a well known fact (or maybe just well published) that households making over $75,000 will pay 90% of all various taxes paid in this country. Those making under $30,000 not only don’t pay any net income taxes….but make money off the government (with earned income credits, etc…). I don’t begrudge them that….but why should they be sad about something that is a small positive for them (one of the few in their lives probably).

    Federal income taxes in 1997 were higher before the current Bush tax cut rates. Therefore people would have a better feeling now about the amount of taxes the pay. Although fed income tax is just one tax…it is 40% of the feds budget.

    This article tells us nothing we didn’t already know….but nice try with the headline though.

  12. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 09/23/2010 - 01:02 pm.

    But no matter … Republicans are determined … they are taking a pledge to set things right (the way they want it) … again they are taking a “contract” out on America!

  13. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 09/23/2010 - 01:22 pm.

    This just in…the sky is blue, the grass is green, and 36% of all 1040’s filed in 2008 had zero or negative tax liability, see link. I would think that this number will be much greater in 2009 and 2010, so getting 45% to say make my neighbor pay would be the expectation not a surprise. 51 million returns with no liability is a shockingly high number. Does anyone realty think that a married couple with two kids making 50,000 should not pay a dime of federal income tax?


  14. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/23/2010 - 02:23 pm.

    It is childish to talk only of the price of government, without considering the value of the services received and how necessary those are – our big budget items are education, criminal justice, and transportation infrastructure.

    We need schools, roads, courts and jails. The Ron’s of the world …. who criticizes Tarryl Clark with cutesy campaign slogans because Mrs. Clark worked with integrity to try to balance the state budget …. need to grow up, have an adult conversation about how to balance our state budget through a combination of service cuts and revenue increases. Neither raising revenue only, nor cutting services only (Mr. Pawlenty’s approach) is practical

  15. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/23/2010 - 02:25 pm.

    Poor people may pay little or no income tax, but they pay plenty of taxes on sales, property and the like.

    Dennis and others like to focus only on the part of the story that irks them … poor not paying income tax. If the poor have it soooo good, why don’t more rich Republican sympathizers forgoe their wealth, enjoy the income-tax-free life of a poor person in the US?

  16. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/23/2010 - 05:22 pm.

    Howard, it’s not that the “poor have it good.” It’s that when George Bush bragged about eliminating income tax liability for everyone making under $30,000 he was wrong.

    He was wrong because when people have no skin in the game, they stop paying attention to the concerns of the people who do. When the top 5% of all income earners pay over 60% of the income taxes, that’s not right. http://www.taxfoundation.org/news/show/250.html

    That may be how Marx designed his system, but in a free society, that’s a disgrace. A flat tax where everyine paid the same percentage of income tax would still result in those who make more, paying more. At a 10% tax rate, a person making $100,000 would pay 10 times what a person making $10,000 would pay. Only a Marxist would believe that wasn’t “fair” enough.

    By all accounts, the Tea Party is made up of older people who earn on average over $75,000 a year. Their anger is based on the fact that they have more than their share of skin in the game.

  17. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/23/2010 - 11:12 pm.

    Marx’s solution has proven to be far worse than the disease, but that doesn’t mean the disease has been cured, or that it’s more benign.

    The disgrace is that the top 20 percent of income earners control 84 percent of the wealth of the society. The share going to the top 1 percent approaches 25 percent of the wealth of the society. We’re creating an aristocracy that makes a mockery of a democratic society, and underscores at least some of the ongoing evils of the only economic system humans have so far been able to devise.

    To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the only thing worse than capitalism is all the other economic systems. It generates wealth better than anything else we’ve been able to come up with, and I don’t expect it to be replaced any time soon, but it carries with it huge social and environmental costs that – surprise – those who benefit the most from the system generally don’t want to talk about. People who label the new health care program or unemployment compensation as “socialism” mostly reveal just how little they know about both socialism and economics.

    Having the top 5 percent of income earners pay 60 percent of the income taxes is not only eminently fair, it’s cutting them a huge tax break. Including the wealthy in plans to extend current tax cuts benefits primarily the wealthy – who’d a thunk it? – who can easily afford to forego the benefit. < http://ctj.org/taxjusticedigest/archive/2010/09/new_data_from_ctj_shows_how_ob.php >

    If Tea Partiers have “more skin in the game,” it’s because they’re also getting far more skin with which to play the game than most people. Median income in Minnesota is $57,288, and in the U.S. it’s $52,059. Those making $75,000 and up can whine all they want – and they may persuade the gullible that somehow helping the well-to-do is in the best interests of the poor – but the very unhealthy chasm between the haves and have-nots is growing by the minute. A flat tax does nothing to correct that, it’s not at all “fair,” and by claiming that “only a Marxist would believe that wasn’t ‘fair’ enough,” Mr. Tester indulges in crude name-calling while putting his own prejudices on display.

  18. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/23/2010 - 11:32 pm.

    The first thing we need to do is eliminate the word ‘fair’ from our tax vocabulary. As they say, life ain’t fair. More important: you’ll never get agreement on what it means.

    So, let’s be honest. Our income tax system is based (at least in part) on what we think people can afford to pay, based on what they have left to work with after paying the multiplicity of taxes we impose. Hell, can’t even go to a doctor without paying a tax these days.

    The woman making $28k a year isn’t going to have as much left as the woman making $68k, $108k pr $228k. She needs a certain minimu amount to survive at anything resembling a contemporary Western standard (and the resemblance is going to be hard to see). As we go up the ladder, the basics are more easily covered and we move into discretionary income. While few of us think we have too much of that, the reality is that most of us do have enough. Until, that is, we become convinced that our transporation needs require a $40k investment, our housing needs require $400k homes, etc.

    Do I pay my fair share of taxes? I haven’t a clue. I’m not eager to pay more, particularly in this economy, with a kid in college and retirement a few years away. Do I need to? Probably, if I want to maintain most of what’s good in this society and improve that which has a ways to go. IMO, we all should pay something, if only because it connects us to the real world in which we live.

    One of the funny things about this is I will pay more taxes than most others in my income bracket this year, regardless of whether rates increase or decrease, because I no longer have a mortgage. Still have the house, though, so I guess we’re ahead of the game.

  19. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/24/2010 - 06:41 am.

    To be fair, I would not point the finger at just Democrats but at the majority of Congress. The unfortunate fact is that in a representative government such as the one in America, politicians have little incentive to exercise fiscal restraint. Ultimately, the problem lies with constituents who will not relinquish benefits nor tolerate tax increases. The only alternative is to take on debt.

  20. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/24/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    we may agree yet Dennis.

    I’d rather a flat tax than one that takes a lower total tax percentage from our best off citizen than it does from the middle class, as the current situation seems.

    You still focus on income tax. But the top earners pay 60% of income taxes, because they are taking very close to that level of all income. Go figure.

    I should have such tax problems. Maybe in the next life time, this one isn’t paying to that level

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