A Taxing Dilemma

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The fact that two-thirds of the American people tell pollsters that their taxes are too high should surprise no one. But surveys that probe more deeply find some interesting ambiguities in the public's opinion on tax cuts and the federal budget surplus.

In September 2000, a Gallup poll found that 74 percent said they were in favor of a federal income tax cut. But budgets are largely about making choices, and whether people choose a tax cut in a survey often depends on how the question is posed. When CBS News asked people to choose between a tax cut and “social programs� during a September 1999 survey, 44 percent favored tax cuts. But when CBS asked specifically about “education and welfare,� 58 percent opted for the programs. With tax cuts as one of a list of suggestions for utilizing the budget surplus, as in a February 2000 Pew survey, 44 percent chose bailing out Social Security and Medicare, while 12 percent sought a tax cut. Americans making more than $75,000 per year are more likely to support a tax cut, while women and people under 30 are more likely to support domestic spending, according to a September 1999 Washington Post survey.

Interestingly, a strong majority says they're more bothered by the tax system than by how much they pay. When asked what bothered them most about taxes in a March 1999 Fox News survey, 46 percent of voters said “some rich people don't pay their fair share,� 26 percent said “the complexity of the system,� while 21 percent said the amount they pay.

Founded by the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, Public Agenda is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit, public opinion and policy research organization based in New York. Visit its Web site at www.publicagenda.org.

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