NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Public Opinion on Taxes: 1937 to Today

April 13, 2012

The American Enterprise Institute recently released polling data that analyzes popular feeling toward taxes in the United States from 1937 to today.  Several broad trends offer insight about current political issues, both in the upcoming presidential election and for the country as a whole.

First, the polling data suggest strongly that the Occupy Wall Street movement had little effect on public perceptions of taxes on the wealthy.

  • The perception that high-income families should pay more taxes was strong throughout the surveyed population.
  • Yet this sentiment has been broadly expressed for a number of years before the movement existed, suggesting that Occupy did little to exacerbate greater interest.
  • On a similar note, polling showed that support for the proposed Buffett Rule remains strong.

Interestingly, however, comparing modern data from Gallup with results collected by the Roper Organization between the 1970s and the 1990s suggests that tax resentment of the rich has actually decreased over time.

  • In questions asked by the Roper Organization between 1972 and 1992, between 72 and 80 percent said "high-income families" pay too little in taxes.
  • In 1992, Gallup started asking whether "upper-income people" pay too little, too much or the right amount in federal taxes, and got a similar result with 77 percent saying they paid too little.
  • Yet in 2011, only 59 percent said they paid too little.

Second, popular perception of the flat tax remains muddled.  Polling from the 1996 presidential election in which Steve Forbes proposed a flat tax and the 2012 Republican primary (in which both Rick Perry and Herman Cain campaigned on the issue) show that most people have no opinion on flat taxes.  This uncertainty is present among a public that prefers the traditional graduated system.

Third and finally, though President Obama's marks on handling taxes decreased as his term wore on, his polling numbers in that area have shown some improvement in early 2012, with various polls indicating approval ratings between 36 and 45 percent.

Separately, in the only poll researchers could find that matched Obama up with Romney on the issue, 49 percent say Obama would do a better job handling taxes, with 45 percent favoring Romney.

Source: Karlyn Bowman, "Public Opinion on Taxes: 1937 to Today," American Enterprise Institute, April 9, 2012.

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