Americans Believe in Tax Equity

Polls Show Americans Want Tax Fairness as Part of Deficit Fix

James Hairston examines myths about American attitudes toward taxes and finds that people want policymakers to take on Bush tax cuts for the wealthy as part of any long-term budget plan.

Taxes are the alleged “third rail” of American politics. Propose to raise them and prepare for an electoral shock. Or so the cliché goes.

In fact, polls show Americans overwhelmingly recognize the need for additional revenue to solve our budget challenges. And they favor tax increases on the wealthiest earners as a way to lower the deficit. That’s because the American people support a fair tax system and think the wealthy should pay their fair share.

On this April 15, as ordinary Americans fill out their tax forms, policymakers grappling with long-term structural problems should recognize that any responsible—and popular—solution to reducing the deficit will require repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, which will add $700 billion to deficits over the next decade if extended. Otherwise, this country will continue to subsidize the rich at the growing expense of the middle class and seniors. And that’s not a message that will win at the polls or the public square.

Let’s look at the latest numbers:

  • More than four-fifths of Americans favor a surtax on federal income taxes for people earning more than $1 million a year, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
  • Almost 7 out of 10 Americans favor eliminating the Bush tax cuts for households earning $250,000 a year or more.
  • The least popular deficit-reduction proposal is turning Medicare into a voucher program where seniors get government coupons for private insurance, as House Republicans have proposed.

The same poll found that a majority of Americans agree “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.” Not less. More. A Center for American Progress poll last summer showed that Americans prefer a better government over a smaller one. People put a priority on improving government in areas such as developing clean energy, making college more affordable, improving public schools, reducing poverty, and ensuring access to affordable health care.

And yet the primary focus of the deficit-reduction debate so far has been on cutting government programs that create jobs, attend to the needs of seniors, and support the middle class.

Even millionaires recognize their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes to get the country out of its deficit problem. “Our country has been good to us,” wrote a group of several dozen millionaires in a letter sent to the president and congressional leaders earlier this week. “Now, we want to do our part to keep that foundation strong so that others can succeed as we have.”

In the National Journal, signatory and founder Garrett Gruener said, “This small monetary sacrifice is both an ethical and patriotic decision, made in the hopes of allowing the United States of America to continue to be a leader economically, politically, and morally.”

As ordinary Americans fill out their tax forms, Washington policymakers should heed the voices of people at all ends of the income spectrum who are asking for a fair tax system, one that will ensure our long-term prosperity. These voices are underrepresented in the media and don’t have paid lobbyists. Our leaders should listen to them and stop pushing for more deficit-inflating tax cuts for the wealthy.

James Hairston is a Research Associate on the Doing What Works project at the Center for American Progress.

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James Hairston

Research Associate & Policy Analyst