Most American pay their taxes. So why do so many think others are cheating?

Most Americans pay their taxes and feel pride in doing so, yet they continue to believe that about a third of US adults skip out on their civic duty. 

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
The Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington.

Contrary to popular belief, supported by complaints many hear as Tax Day approaches in mid-April, most Americans pay taxes and feel a sense of pride in doing so, studies have shown.

But they don’t necessarily believe that their fellow Americans are feeling, or acting, the same.

As the tax filing deadline for the 2016 year comes Tuesday, conversations around complexities and annoyances surrounding the filing process as well as President Trump’s own move to keep his past returns a secret have resurfaced. But a lesser known narrative also comes with the deadline: Surveys show that more than 85 percent of respondents say it’s not at all OK to cheat on taxes, while more than 90 percent said paying up is every American’s civic duty.

“People think Americans hate taxes. They don’t, as I found while researching my new book; they see it as an important civic duty,” Vanessa Williamson a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book “Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes,” wrote in a piece for The Washington.

But thanks to confusion over forms that can result in errors and spread of misinformation about the roles of immigrants and low-income earners in the system as well as high-profile cases of tax evasion and fraud, Americans trust of their fellow taxpayers has dampened. And high-profile fraud or evasion cases have contributed to the idea that Americans are cheating the system more often than they are.

“What makes them angry is the idea that some people don’t pay their fair share,” Dr. Williamson adds.

Her research shows that 88 percent of people identify themselves as taxpayers when surveyed, but believe only 66 percent of people, on average, are paying their taxes.

“Many Americans think that they themselves are taxpayers, but think a lot of others are not,” Williamson says. “I call this mismatch the ‘taxpayer gap.’ ”

Part of that trend isn’t necessarily new. For several years, high rates of Americans have said it’s imperative for everyone to pay their taxes in full, as the act constitutes a vital civic duty to preserve the organization and intricacies of American life.

But paying taxes takes a number of forms. While the arduous process of filing a 1040 on income comes to mind for many, those paying property and sales tax are also funding vital programs across cities and towns.

So while it’s true that 45 percent of Americans do not pay federal income tax, labeling them as Americans who pay no taxes doesn’t paint an accurate picture of their contributions.

And latching on to the idea that large swathes of Americans aren’t paying their taxes can impact how people see one another.

“These stories can cause people to distrust the tax system, which is a bad thing for the whole country,” Charles Rossotti, a former IRS commissioner, previously told The Christian Science Monitor. “Although tax attitudes have held up very well, just a small erosion in that attitude toward compliance could mean devastating risk.”

Americans also have different ideas about what’s fair. According to a Gallup poll last year, more than 60 percent of people think high-income individuals and corporations pay too little, while around half of respondents said that low- and middle-income individuals are paying too much. Of all respondents, 57 percent said they believe their own taxes are too high, while 37 percent say they believe they’re paying a fair price.

While those debates are likely to remain across political and cultural lines, agreement and pride in paying taxes will also likely remain a common feature in public opinion on taxes.

“Being a taxpayer makes you a member in one of the most inclusive of clubs,” Williamson writes. “This Tax Day, spare a thought for all the taxes you pay, and all the taxpayers who are chipping in with you.”

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