Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Sociologists' research study finds everyday tax talk is 'morally charged'

Date:
May 23, 2012
Source:
Northern Illinois University
Summary:
A new study by sociologists demonstrates how everyday "tax talk" is morally charged and how many Americans associate the income tax with a violation of the moral principle that hard work should be rewarded.

As U.S. presidential election campaigns heat up, candidates can expect an earful of complaints over taxes. Now a new study led by a Northern Illinois University sociologist argues that American middle-class hostilities toward the federal income tax follow a common discourse rooted in moral beliefs.

Related Articles


"We propose that everyday tax talk among the middle class is not simply about economics or free markets. Tax talk is morally charged," NIU sociologist Jeffrey Kidder said.

"In this study, we demonstrate how people associate the income tax with a violation of the moral principle that hard work should be rewarded," he added. "Our research has implications for how policymakers should frame fiscal issues. Because people intertwine fiscal issues with morality, approaches to tax policy that only emphasize economic benefits for the working and middle classes do not resonate with everyday understandings about what taxes mean to people."

Kidder co-authored the study with sociologist Isaac William Martin of the University of California, San Diego. Their findings are published in the current online issue of the journal, Symbolic Interaction.

"Our research further suggests that when Americans lash out at 'takeovers,' 'massive taxes' and 'bailouts,' they are locating these fiscal issues within a more general cultural narrative of a hard-working middle class besieged on all sides," Kidder said. In other words, their tax talk "is about dollars, but it is also about a moral sense of what is right."

The researchers conducted 24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses -- a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation. The interviews were conducted during the first quarter of 2009.

"Southerners, whites and small business owners are three groups generally known to be vocal in their opposition to taxes," Kidder said. "We wanted to get a sense of how they talk about taxes in everyday life."

The authors note that Americans are "famously hostile" to taxes but are not heavily taxed when compared to residents of other affluent democratic countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Yet taxes are a preeminent issue in domestic politics, as demonstrated by the attention afforded "Joe the Plumber" during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign and by the growth of the Tea Party movement in recent years.

So why do Americans feel so hostile to the income tax? Among the researchers' findings:

  • Interview respondents saw themselves as morally deserving and hard-working people, whereas they perceived a tax structure that benefits the idle poor and the idle rich.

"The deserving worker is imagined to be in a morally dominant position, but sandwiched between an economically more powerful group that manipulates the rules for its own benefit and a subordinate group that benefits from government spending but escapes taxation," Martin said.

"In light of prior research, it is more noteworthy that hostility to recipients of government aid was not reserved for minorities and the poor," he added. "Rich recipients of bailouts were also disparaged as people who did not deserve money because they did not work for it. In fact, conducting our interviews soon after the passage of TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) and during the growing controversies surrounding the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), we actually heard more about the undeserving rich than the undeserving poor."

  • Respondents frequently associated their earliest memories of taxation with their first jobs, or wage labor, which in turn was associated with the absence of personal autonomy and dignity, or the ability to control one's own time and work.

"Even though most young people are routinely exposed to various taxes as they grow up -- the most obvious being sales taxes on purchases -- when we asked people to discuss their first memory of taxation they discussed their first paycheck," Kidder said. "This symbolic connection between being a taxpayer and lacking autonomy, we believe, is essential to making sense of Americans' tax talk more generally."

"In contrast, when we asked our respondents to name 'the best thing about being an entrepreneur,' most of them clearly interpreted this as an invitation to talk about being an entrepreneur as opposed to being an employee," Martin added. "Although their answers could have stressed the excitement of competition or the profit opportunities available to creative entrepreneurs, few touched on these issues. By far the most common response was an answer about personal autonomy -- in the sense of self-direction and self-determination."

  • Hard work was viewed as a virtue, and respondents didn't like idea of being taxed while they work, instead speaking in favor of a flat tax on consumption. "Tax whatever," one respondent told the researchers. "Don't take my paycheck."

"Respondents didn't want the fruits of their labor taken away directly at the point of production," Martin said.

"Although we did not ask our respondents to propose an alternative tax, most of them did so spontaneously, and they generally proposed a flat-rate tax on consumption as an improvement over the existing graduated personal income tax," Martin added. "They favored consumption taxes because they saw a tax on consumption -- as opposed to a tax on earnings -- as a tax that did not punish virtue. They also favored a 'flat tax' because they thought its simplicity would not reward sophisticated cheaters. Such talk is not about individual self-interest, but about our respondents' sense of the proper relations among groups."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Northern Illinois University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jeffrey L. Kidder, Isaac William Martin. What We Talk About When We Talk About Taxes. Symbolic Interaction, 2012; DOI: 10.1002/symb.10

Cite This Page:

Northern Illinois University. "Sociologists' research study finds everyday tax talk is 'morally charged'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 May 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523161939.htm>.
Northern Illinois University. (2012, May 23). Sociologists' research study finds everyday tax talk is 'morally charged'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 28, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523161939.htm
Northern Illinois University. "Sociologists' research study finds everyday tax talk is 'morally charged'." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523161939.htm (accessed January 28, 2015).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Science & Society News

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

City Divided: A Look at Model Schools in the TDSB

City Divided: A Look at Model Schools in the TDSB

The Toronto Star (Jan. 27, 2015) — Model schools are rethinking how they engage with the community to help enhance the lives of the students and their parents. Video provided by The Toronto Star
Powered by NewsLook.com
More Guns Found in Carry-on Bags at US Airports

More Guns Found in Carry-on Bags at US Airports

AP (Jan. 27, 2015) — The Transportation Security Administration says officers discovered 2,212 firearms during safety screenings last year, a 22 percent jump over 2013. (Jan. 27) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
WikiLeaks Accuses Google of Handing Over Emails to US

WikiLeaks Accuses Google of Handing Over Emails to US

AFP (Jan. 27, 2015) — Whistleblowing site WikiLeaks accused Google of handing over the emails and electronic data of its senior staff to the US authorities without providing notification until almost three years later. Duration: 01:09 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Storm Slams New England, Spares Mid-Atlantic

Storm Slams New England, Spares Mid-Atlantic

AP (Jan. 27, 2015) — A howling blizzard with wind gusts over 70 mph heaped snow on Boston along with other stretches of lower New England and Long Island on Tuesday, but failed to live up to the hype in Philadelphia and New York City. (Jan. 27) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Science & Society

Business & Industry

Education & Learning

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins