Do Attitudes Toward Taxation Change When Economic Situations Change?: Evidence from Poland

The following is written by Kinga Wysieńska-Di Carlo and Matthew Di Carlo. Wysieńska-Di Carlo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

In general, people tend to support expanding many of the programs funded by their taxes, but they don’t like paying taxes. In the U.S., for example, most people think the government should spend more on programs such as education, health care and urban renewal, but only a tiny fraction believes their own taxes, especially their federal taxes, are too low.

One of the possible explanations for these seemingly contradictory attitudes might be that people think tax systems should be more progressive – that is, they believe that tax revenue should increase, but that the increase should come from higher tax rates on higher earners. Poland is an interesting example in this context (if for no other reason than the fact that there were no taxes in Poland during the communist period). Today, when asked a generic question about whether the government should play a role in reducing income differences between the rich and the poor, Polish people tend to respond in the affirmative in larger proportions than their counterparts in virtually any other advanced nation. Yet responses to these types of questions can be quite different when they ask about specific issues, such as tax rates (Roberts et al. 1994).

Let’s take a quick look at some very tentative analyses that we (and our colleague Zbigniew Karpiński) have performed on this issue, with a specific focus on the question of whether people’s attitudes toward taxation change as their circumstances (e.g., income, employment) change.

Investing In Children = Supporting Their Families

Although some parents are better positioned than others to meet their families’ child care needs, very few parents are immune to the challenges of balancing work and family. Adding further stress to families is the fact that single-parent households are at a record high in the U.S., with more than 40 percent of births happening outside of marriage. Paid parental leave and quality early childhood education (ECE) are two important policies that can assist parents in this regard. In the United States, however, both are less comprehensive and less equally distributed than in most other developed nations.

As a recent (and excellent) Forbes piece points out, we have two alternatives: hope that difficult family circumstances reverse themselves, or support policies such as paid parental leave and universal early childhood education and care — policies which would make it much easier for all parents to raise children, be it as a couple or on their own. So, what’s it going to be?

In 2010, a global survey on paid leave and other workplace benefits directed by Dr. Jody Heymann (McGill University) and Dr. Alison Earle (Northeastern University) found that the U.S. is one of four* countries in the world without a national law guaranteeing paid leave for parents.** The other three nations are Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. Some might see this as evidence of American “exceptionalism," but what a 2011 Human Rights Watch report finds exceptional is the degree to which the nation is "Failing Its Families." In fact, according to a survey of registered voters cited in the report, 76 percent of Americans said they would endorse laws that provide paid leave for family care and childbirth. Yet, it is still the case in the U.S. that parental leave, when available at all, is usually brief and unpaid.

Why Do Most Americans Support "Assistance To The Poor" But Oppose "Welfare"?

Politicians and other public figures spend a great deal of resources – time and money – on crafting their messages so as to elicit a desired response. A famous example is the effort to relabel the estate tax as the death tax – the former conjures images of very wealthy people paying their fair share, whereas the latter obscures this limited applicability, and invokes outrage at being “taxed just for dying."

As everyone knows, words matter, and these efforts pay off. You don’t need to look at the results of too many surveys or polls to realize that people respond very differently depending on what you call something or how you describe it (e.g., see this post on attitudes toward teacher tenure).

One other particularly interesting – and important – example of this description-based divergence of attitudes toward social programs for the poor.

Americans Do NOT Want To Cut Government Programs

Conservatives sometimes assert and often imply that Americans want to cut government spending on social assistance and other programs. This is a myth.

In fact, when it comes to the types of programs that get most of the attention in our national debate, almost nobody supports spending reductions and, in many cases, there is strong support for increases.

Take a look at the figure below, which presents General Social Survey data for 2010. Each bar presents the distribution of responses to questions of whether the U.S. spends too much (red), about the right amount (yellow) or too little (green) on several different types of programs and public resources.

When It Comes To How We Use Evidence, Is Education Reform The New Welfare Reform?

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

In the mid-1990s, after a long and contentious debate, the U.S. Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which President Clinton signed into law. It is usually called the “Welfare Reform Act," as it effectively ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program (which is what most people mean when they say “welfare," even though it was [and its successor is] only a tiny part of our welfare state). Established during the New Deal, AFDC was mostly designed to give assistance to needy young children (it was later expanded to include support for their parents/caretakers as well).

In place of AFDC was a new program – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF gave block grants to states, which were directed to design their own “welfare” programs. Although the states were given considerable leeway, their new programs were to have two basic features: first, for welfare recipients to receive benefits, they had to be working; and second, there was to be a time limit on benefits, usually 3-5 years over a lifetime, after which individuals were no longer eligible for cash assistance (states could exempt a proportion of their caseload from these requirements). The general idea was that time limits and work requirements would “break the cycle of poverty”; recipients would be motivated (read: forced) to work, and in doing so, would acquire the experience and confidence necessary for a bootstrap-esque transformation.

There are several similarities between the bipartisan welfare reform movement of the 1990s and the general thrust of the education reform movement happening today. For example, there is the reliance on market-based mechanisms to “cure” longstanding problems, and the unusually strong liberal-conservative alliance of the proponents. Nevertheless, while calling education reform “the new welfare reform” might be a good soundbyte, it would also take the analogy way too far.

My intention here is not to draw a direct parallel between the two movements in terms of how they approach their respective problems (poverty/unemployment and student achievement), but rather in how we evaluate their success in doing so. In other words, I am concerned that the manner in which we assess the success or failure of education reform in our public debate will proceed using the same flawed and misguided methods that were used by many for welfare reform.