What do Americans think about paying taxes?

From the Boston Tea Party to the modern political movement of the same name, one may be quick to think that complaining about taxes is an American pastime.  But are such sentiments truly representative of all Americans? Perhaps not.

Vanessa Williamson, a Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University, and an Equitable Growth grantee, seeks to gain a deeper understanding of American’s attitudes towards taxes. Williamson is best-known for her work on the modern-day Tea Party and the ideology that drives the phenomenon. In her newest research, however, she attempts to capture the sentiments of a broader group of Americans. Williamson believes that, while there is a great deal of research detailing the most efficient or equitable tax policies, that body of research is irrelevant unless it takes the political landscape into account, a landscape that is shaped in large part by public opinion.

Williamson’s work is especially timely in the wake of president Obama’s latest budget proposal, which would raise taxes for the highest earners and expand tax credits for the middle class in an attempt to tackle rising economic inequality. The tax question also remains front and center in the halls of Congress as members begin crafting the budget for fiscal year 2016.

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle must appeal to the American people before they make any substantive changes to U.S. tax policy. So, in this era of inequality, do people see taxes as an investment worth making? To find an answer, Williamson will utilize surveys, interviews, and text analysis to gain a deeper understanding of public opinion on taxes.

Williamson is still compiling survey and interview data, but her preliminary research shows an interesting trend in opinions on taxes expressed in letters written to local newspapers by individuals who identify themselves as a “taxpayer.” After analyzing 1,300 of these letters written between 2003 and 2012, Williamson found that most of these letter-writers refer to themselves as taxpayers as a means to assert a certain status. “This assertion has a democratic flavor with the taxpayer as a kind of ‘everyman,” says Williamson, “but can also be exclusionary in its implications, as writers assert a status over presumed non-taxpayers.”

Williamson finds that 86 percent of those letters do not contain complaints about taxes. Rather, they take issue with other policies perceived to be steering the country in the wrong direction. Only 38 percent of the letters call for an overall reduction in government spending. A majority of Americans may see their yearly payments to Uncle Sam as a democratic duty that allows them to engage in broader policy debates because they have a stake in their country’s well-being—a stake that many people are proud of.

Obviously, these results are preliminary and will be of greater use once they are supplemented by Williamson’s other data. But if her research continues to uncover similar trends, policymakers may need to recognize that the political sentiment in the United States is not entirely anti-tax. Rather, individuals may see paying taxes as a channel through which to engage in the democratic process in a meaningful way.

March 13, 2015

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