The tax that binds? For many, Tax Day symbolizes civic duty.
values & ideals
Plenty of Americans have concerns about taxes, but overall, most view their returns through a lens of communal responsibility. It's a view that underpins democracy, some experts say.
Leesburg, Va., and Boston—Today is tax day in the United States and, of course, not many people would call that a fun thing. But here's a twist to consider: The vast majority of Americans view paying taxes as an act of civic virtue, not of onerous government coercion.
Yes, Americans often voice concerns about how their money is spent. Yes, they have doubts about whether taxes are fairly apportioned across the population. But research shows that for most people, the primary feeling about taxes isn't generally one of rebellion against their own burden.
"I take my lumps and pay," says Sue Sedlazek, a longtime resident of Leesburg, Va.
For Ms. Sedlazek, this stoic attitude is backed by something deeper. "We're a community," she says. "We all benefit by paying in for services."
That notion of communal duty is echoed in the views of many taxpayers across America. Yet it may seem surprising, given the "tax revolt" theme that has surfaced so often in US politics since the 1970s. Tax cuts, pushed most often by Republicans, have been a recurring agenda item at the federal level. And heading into this year's midterm elections, congressional Republicans are banking on their 2017 tax-cut package as a key selling point to voters.
"We tend to underestimate the extent to which Americans view paying taxes as a civic responsibility," says Vanessa Williamson, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and author of the 2017 book "Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes."
From her survey-based research, she says: "It's not just something that's widely believed, it's actually deeply believed."
This may be part of the reason why President Trump and Republicans have struggled in their efforts to win public support for the tax cuts passed in December. Voters aren't just thinking about what might benefit their own bank accounts in the short term. They're looking at a bigger view of the nation's needs for the longer run.
This communal spirit, Dr. Williamson says, represents something essential to the health of a democracy. After all, taxation without representation stirred a rancor that helped spark the American Revolution. What followed in the past two centuries has been a nation, and a global movement, toward government by the consent of the governed.
"People's attitudes about [paying taxes] are really the core of their attitudes about democracy," Williamson says. "The second you ask people about taxes, it taps into their concerns about whether the government works on their behalf."
Her research found a broadly shared sense of civic duty. Yet of course, US voters also have their share of frustrations. While the gripes vary from person to person, two concerns that stand out in polls are fairness and fiscal responsibility.
In a March poll by Quinnipiac University, 47 percent of Americans said they disapprove of the Republican tax plan (with 38 percent saying they approve), and one reason seems to be concerns about fairness. Nearly two-thirds think the law will give the most benefits to the wealthy, rather than other groups, according to a February Quinnipiac Poll.
Some 53 percent of Americans described their own federal tax burden as "about right" in an October CBS News poll (40 percent said "more than fair share"), but 58 percent in that poll said taxes on the wealthy should go up, and 56 percent said the same for corporations.
On fiscal responsibility, it's notable that a majority of Americans in the CBS poll (54 percent) thought cutting taxes would help grow the economy. Yet they also showed a cautionary streak: Some 63 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned about budget deficits, and 70 percent said other issues were more important than a tax cut and reform bill.
"I worry ... that we're kicking the can down the road" as the national debt rises, says Sedlazek in Leesburg, who is now a yoga instructor. She pauses as a neighbor offers drinking water for the two dogs she's walking. "We're not investing in the things that we should," she says, citing education among her big priorities. But as someone who also has a master's degree in business administration, "I don't want wastefulness either."
Indeed, official forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office show rising federal deficits. That's something of concern for all taxpayers, whatever their political leanings, says Angie Schmidt Whitney, who works in experiential learning and career planning near her home in Big Lake, Minn.
"[The tax cuts] all expire in 2025 anyway, so this is super short-term," she says. "Part of me says 'Well, that's not really a tax-plan change when you're really only talking a short period of time.' "
For their part, fans of the tax cuts aren't necessarily thinking of the tax policy just from the standpoint of their personal ledger.
"Although I'm personally probably going to take a hit, I think it's good for business and it's good for the economy, and good for the stock market," says Mark Harrington, a corporate lawyer who lives in Newport Beach, Calif. Some provisions, he notes, may encourage companies to bring money back home from overseas, stimulating investment in the US.
Although the law helps high-earning Americans in general, its benefits are limited for people in some professions, including lawyers. Meanwhile, a cap on deducting state-level taxes and mortgage interest is a financial penalty (compared to the prior code), a change that especially affects people from states like California where both taxes and property values are high.
States like California are a reminder that sharp divides remain among Americans on the optimal level of taxes – typically with rifts between liberals who favor more public services and conservatives who prefer smaller government.
Tax revolts aren't a thing of the past. But Brookings researcher Williamson finds that, in general, the public appears to have grown more open to raising taxes in the new millennium.
"Times have changed," she says. Where about 1 in 5 tax-boosting ballot initiatives passed in the 1970s and 80s, the approval rate has been about 1 in 2 over the past 15 years, she says.
One reason may be that, after rounds of tax-cutting in some states, voters are growing more concerned about shortfalls in public services than about their tax bills. At the federal level, too, Americans are generally paying much lower effective tax rates now than in 1980, when Ronald Reagan's election provided a mandate for tax cuts.
Back then, about 7 in 10 Americans saw their taxes as too high, according to polling by the General Social Survey.
Today, with a generally strong US economy, schoolteacher Jeff Vogel in St. Cloud, Minn., says he's less concerned with getting a tax cut than with how fiscal policy will affect future generations. "Yes, [the tax-cut law is] going to benefit me, but ... I'd like to see it work towards bettering our grandchildren in terms of paying down the national debt to building up the infrastructure."
In Leesburg, resident A. Harris, a musician and voice teacher, is getting ready for a singing performance. He also takes a sober view of the tax issue. "Nobody likes to pay taxes," he says. "I want to pay as little as I can."
But he cites all the public goods and services that benefit him and his family, from schools and parks to the US military. "While it's painful [to pay], the alternative is probably going to be more painful."
"If you don't agree with that there are about 200 other countries you can move to," Mr. Harris says.