Americans’ discontent with the size of their federal income-tax bill is at a two-decade high, according to a new poll — even though Congress hasn’t passed any direct income-tax increases in recent years.
One month after the 2023 tax season’s conclusion, 51% of respondents in a newly released Gallup poll said their income taxes were not fair. That’s up from 44% last year and marks a record high since 1997, when Gallup’s pollsters started asking how people felt about their income-tax bills.
Meanwhile, 46% of people said they were paying a fair amount of income tax. That basically matched the dim mood over two decades ago, in in 1999, when 45% said that they were paying a fair amount.
Six in 10 poll participants said their federal income taxes were “too high,” pollsters said. 2001 was the last time that share of people felt the same way, Gallup said.
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Gallup pollsters spoke with more than 1,000 people, doing their field work through most of April.
The poll comes during a fierce debate about whether the wealthiest taxpayers, as well as corporations, are paying enough in taxes. The Biden administration has been pressing for higher tax rates on high earners. A Democratic-controlled Congress last year passed a law with an $80 billion funding infusion for the IRS over a 10-year span in part to launch more audits of rich individuals and corporations.
Many Americans walked away from tax season with income-tax refunds that were smaller than a year ago. That’s due, at least in part, to the end of pandemic-era boosts to certain credits, tax experts have previously told MarketWatch.
Both backdrops might be at play in the public mood on taxes, observers noted, and political affiliation could have something to do with these changes, Gallup said. Only one-third of Republicans said their income taxes this year were fair, for example — that’s down from 63% in 2020, the last full year of the Trump administration.
The change in Republican sentiment could be why there was a heavy swing since 2020, when 59% said their taxes represented a fair number. In 2020, 56% of political independents said their taxes were fair, and that percentage fell to 45% a few years later. Among Democrats, meanwhile, the 63% saying their taxes were fair was virtually unchanged over that span.
Republicans “are certainly more frustrated now with Biden in office,” said Jeff Jones, senior editor of the Gallup poll. “But they are even more frustrated than they were when Obama was in office.”
Democrat Joe Biden campaigned in 2020 on pledges to raise taxes on corporations and households earning over $400,000 a year and not on those making less than that. So far, the president has not been able to turn proposals like a billionaire’s minimum tax or a higher top tax rate into law.
The real tax-policy fight brewing in the background is the 2025 expiration of Trump-era tax cuts, experts have said.
In the sweeping 2017 tax-code overhaul, Congress reduced five of seven income-tax brackets and boosted commonly used features of the tax code, including payouts for the child tax credit and the standard deduction. But some of those tax cuts were scheduled to sunset, while others were permanent.
Another potential shaping the mood on taxes is the broader economy and recent tax season, Jones said. One possibility, he noted, is that some people are getting pushed to higher tax brackets with pay raises meant to keep up with inflation. (Tax brackets are adjusted annually to account for inflation.)
While inflation is still pinching wallets, tax refunds are lower than they were a year ago.
Refunds averaged just over $2,800, and that’s down more than 7% from a year earlier, according to IRS data through May 12.
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For his part, Lawrence Zelenak, who teaches tax law at Duke University, thinks the current darkening public mood “is largely a response to the disappearance of all the temporary pandemic-related tax relief,” he said.
In 2020 an estimated 60% of households ended up with no federal income-tax liability because they were making less and bringing in more through direct cash assistance from the federal government, according to Tax Policy Center estimates.
By 2022, an estimated 40% of households wouldn’t face any federal income tax, according to the nonpartisan think tank — which is more in line with levels seen before the pandemic.
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Refunds during 2022 got a kick from extragenerous payouts including the child tax credit, the child- and dependent-care credit and the earned-income tax credit.
Most taxpayers also got a chance to shave their tax bill with a temporary change that let them take the standard deduction and also write off a portion of their charitable donations. But the credits reverted to their prepandemic size, and the deduction on cash donations subsequently went away.
“With the end of the pandemic tax relief, many people have seen their income-tax liabilities go up, and it’s not surprising they see that as unfair,” Zelenak said. “So it may be the change more than the absolute level of tax.”