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Will Johnson is CEO of The Harris Poll. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
Are you tempted to fudge a little bit as you fill out your income tax return? And if you did, would it be a crime? For many Americans, the answers to those questions are not as clear-cut as one might expect.
A new Harris Poll survey on the topic of taxation, in fact, shows a country mired in cynicism and mistrust, both when it comes to how taxes are collected and the government spending that tax money supports. And it raises questions about Americans’ willingness to skirt, stretch and even break tax laws.
The findings speak to a system whose very complexity breeds confusion and suspicion. It’s a mess our political leaders would be wise to clean up, not just because it would make good fiscal and economic sense, but also because it would help restore civic trust and accountability.
Since before there even was a United States, citizens here have rebelled against paying taxes. That hasn’t changed, based on a survey we conducted of more than 1,000 demographically representative adults in March. In total, 57 percent of U.S. adults believe they are taxed at unfairly high rates, according to our poll. That extends through every cohort — age, gender, income, education and race/ethnicity.
The only difference is in degree: A whopping 78 percent of men 45 to 54 years old say they’re overtaxed, the highest portion of any group. People with household incomes of $75,000 to $99,900 a year (71 percent) and college graduates (57 percent) are also extra likely to feel overtaxed.
As for what the government does with that revenue, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults disagree with how it’s spent. This is not surprising, given the incredible array of government outlays — from health care and defense to interest on federal debt, to name a few of the biggest. Just about everyone can find something they dislike, which may deepen feelings of being overtaxed.
You can also see those feelings in who people suspect of paying too little. Half of American adults say businesses are most likely to submit misleading tax filings. Nearly 6 in 10 also say high-income individuals are more prone to cheating than low- and middle-income earners. (The reality, per the Internal Revenue Service: Three-quarters of tax cheats are individuals — mostly middle-income — with the rest being corporations.)
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many Americans occupy a moral gray area when it comes to actually paying taxes. First, they can’t agree on what actually qualifies as fraud. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults say that deliberately misreporting income is tax evasion. (Note to the remaining third: Lying on your taxes is, in fact, a crime). But a slight majority (52 percent) say there’s no difference between underreporting and using legal loopholes to lessen what one owes.
Second, among those who see no difference between taking advantage of legal loopholes and actually lying on your taxes, a majority think that exploiting loopholes is smart. And nearly half of them (48 percent) think that deliberately understating your income is not tax evasion (which, again, it is).
Overall, nearly 6 in 10 U.S. adults say it would be smart to use loopholes to owe less. The share increases to two-thirds among those making more than $100,000 annually and college grads. Interestingly, most millennials, those currently 26 to 41 years old, say misrepresenting personal finances to lower their tax bill isn’t criminal.
Millennials are an interesting group when it comes to taxes. Despite their reputation for progressive activism, their tax views illustrate a libertarian streak: They are the second-most likely group to believe themselves overtaxed, the biggest fans of loopholes and tax evasion, and the only generation in which a majority say they should not have to pay taxes to support resources in their community.
Every few years, a big push is made to reform the tax code — everyone seems to agree on the idea of simplifying it by getting rid of wasteful loopholes and tax breaks. But one group’s waste is another’s critical support, and somehow each reform effort seems to fiddle with marginal rates without dramatically simplifying the overall structure. The result is a thicket that fosters doubt and grievance. It’s time for politicians to give it another try and go for more holistic changes.
Meantime, when you feel that surge of bitterness over writing out another big check to the government this month, know that you’re not alone: Most Americans feel the same way.