Who are the taxpayers? In political rhetoric, the taxpayer is often the hardworking counterpoint to the undeserving welfare recipient, or the long-suffering victim of government corruption and ineptitude. And yet, despite its potency as a political symbol, we know little about who is understood by the public to be among the taxpaying class. New survey data reveal that there is a large discrepancy between the population of self-described taxpayers and the population of perceived taxpayers; about 93% of US adults describe themselves as taxpayers, but they imagine that only about 69% of their peers pay taxes. In the control condition, Republicans had lower estimates of the taxpaying population, were more concerned that low-income people do not pay enough in taxes, and low-income Republicans were more likely to doubt their own status as taxpayers. After receiving information about the substantial total tax liability of low-income people, Republicans and Democrats’ views of the taxpaying population converged. However, in the condition that focused on low-income Americans as net beneficiaries of the federal tax system, partisans had opposite responses. Low-income Democrats become less likely to describe themselves as taxpayers while low-income Republicans become more likely to assert their status as taxpayers. The results have implications for how and why the parties talk about tax policy, and suggest that the identity of “the taxpayer” has both an economic and a political resonance worthy of greater scholarly scrutiny.
About the author
Vanessa S. Williamson is a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, and the author of Read My Lips: Why Americans are Proud to Pay Taxes. She is also the coauthor, with Theda Skocpol, of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.
“Federal Income Tax” (FIT) Treatment
Almost half of US households pay no federal individual income taxes or receive a refund larger than the amount they paid in.
The chart shows the average federal income tax rate for people at different income levels. For instance, the poorest Americans, those making about $15,000 a year, paid an average income tax rate of −7%, meaning that they received a larger tax refund from the federal government than they paid in.
US households with an income of about $15,000 pay an average of X% in federal individual income taxes. [0, −2, −7, −10]
“All Taxes” (AT) Treatment
Almost all US households pay taxes.
The chart shows the average tax rate, including all kinds of federal, state and local taxes, for people at different income levels. For instance, the poorest Americans, those making about $15,000 a year, paid an average tax rate of 19%, meaning they paid an average of $2850 in taxes to the local, state and federal government.
US households with an income of about $15,000 pay an average of X% of their income in federal, state and local taxes. [0, 7, 19, 25]
Internet usage has increased over time.
The chart shows the rates of Internet usage in the US over time. For instance, in 2007, 74% of American adults reported using the Internet.
In 2007, X% of American adults reported using the Internet. [38, 66, 74, 84]
|Control||Treatment: “All Taxes”||Treatment: “Federal Income Taxes”|
|No HS diploma||5%||4%||4%|
|BA or above||32%||33%||36%|
|Unemployed or not in labor force||39%||37%||37%|
|Less than $25 k||19%||17%||19%|
|$50 k–75 k||20%||21%||20%|
|$75 k–100 k||16%||12%||17%|
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