Skewed Perception: American Attitude Toward Taxes

The word “taxes” can stir up many emotions for Americans. The general attitude of citizens toward taxes can be ambiguous and unclear. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a television series on FXX, captures this picture in one of their recent episodes. Two of the main characters become troubled after finding out the local mental institution has released its patients because of statewide cutbacks. One of the characters suggests that they must pay more in taxes to keep these hospitals open. The other character becomes angry and says, “How much do these vultures need? I already pay a ton in taxes… Where’s that going?” They eventually discover that their tax money went into a new practice facility for the Philadelphia Eagles, “a no-brainer” in their eyes. This ironic scene has comedic appeal, but also brings up the topic of American perception of the tax system in the US.

Vanessa Williamson of Brookings Institute takes a look at the attitude of American citizens towards the US tax system in her latest book, Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes. Through national surveys and personal interviews, she delves into the tax knowledge of the public and some of the misconceptions surrounding the process. An overarching part within the Williamson’s work is that most Americans feel a “very strong” civic responsibility to pay their taxes. Tax payment is seen as “evidence” of doing your “part” or share for society. Examples of this is throughout the news, like investigating the current president’s tax reports. The public puts emphasis on making sure every citizen is contributing monetarily to society.

Williamson also points to American perception of different socioeconomic classes and their level of contribution through taxes. There is sentiment felt by many middle and upper class Americans having to do with the poor. Because poor have lower income taxes relative to their rich counterparts, upper class citizens feel that the poor aren’t really paying taxes. Williamson notes that upper class Americans tend to forget about other taxes, such as sales tax, which affect the poor significantly. The theme from this story is relativity. When it comes to taxes, Americans visualize their tax contribution based on the amount of money and not relative cost of taxes. People’s perception of taxes is dominated by their day-today experiences with these policies. My parents are most likely thinking about the portion of their income lost every year, while the homeless population is thinking about the extra money needed to purchase food. It’s all relative.

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