Why Americans Hate Paying Taxes

1040 tax document
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The debate over taxes has long been an issue in American politics, and now researchers have found some of the moral underpinnings that may explain why many hate paying taxes.

The study was small, with just 24 small businesspeople taking part in relatively open-ended interviews. Even so, Jeff Kidder of Northern Illinois University and Isaac Martin from the University of California-San Diego, found some trends.

In essence, middle-class Americans, the results suggest, see taxes as a means of robbing hardworking citizens of their dignity.

The participants "portray taxation as a threat to the moral order because they believe taxes deprive deserving hardworking middle class people of dignity, while rewarding others who are undeserving (both rich and poor)," the researchers write this week in the journal Symbolic Interaction. [Infographic: Death and Taxes]

Kidder and Martin chose this group of participants from the South, because such entrepreneurs are typically strongly anti-tax, while southern states also hold plenty of supporters of the Tea Party (whose name stands for Taxed Enough Already). In fact, a recent survey by payroll service provider Paychex found that tax codes, along with employment regulations and retirement security are the top three election issues for small business owners.

The interviews in the new study revealed participants associated income taxes as violating the moral principle that hard work should be rewarded, the researchers noted. So rather than being associated with a free-market ideology or a person's own economic interests, at least for these taxpayers, tax hostility was more linked with moral principles.

"When Americans lash out at 'takeovers,' 'massive taxes' and 'bailouts,' they are looking at these issues from the perspective of a hardworking middle class besieged on all sides," Kidder said in a statement. "Tax talk is about dollars, but it is also about a moral sense of what is right."

One respondent, Polly, who owns a fruit basket franchise, summed up her feelings toward income taxes with, "Here you work so hard for your money and it all gets gobbled up," she said. "… pay at the pump. Tax my food. Tax whatever. Tax it there. Don't take my paycheck."

"Tax talk is morally charged and resonates with how Americans see themselves and their place in society," Kidder said in a statement.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.