For all the complaining this time of year, most Americans actually think the taxes they pay are fair.
Not that they're cheering. Fewer people expect refunds this year than in previous years, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows. But as Monday's filing deadline approaches, the poll shows that 54 percent believe their tax bills are either somewhat fair or very fair, compared with 46 percent who say they are unfair.
Should taxes be raised to eat into huge federal deficits? Among the public, 62 percent say they favor cutting government services to sop up the red ink. Just 29 percent say raise taxes.
That's sure to be a major issue as Congress takes up budget legislation for next year and the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way in earnest. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama revived his proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help reduce government borrowing.
In the poll, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to think their tax bills were fair. Liberals and moderates were more likely to think so than conservatives. Women more likely than men. Most whites thought their tax bills were fair; most non-whites didn't.
The young and the old — adults under 30 and seniors 65 and above — were much more likely to say their taxes were fair than those in their prime earning years. Surprisingly, there was little difference in the perception of fairness across income levels.
'I have a big problem with the millionaires'
But just because people say they pay a fair amount doesn't mean that they think others do.
Sandra Jennings, a retired teacher in South Bend, Ind., said her federal taxes are fair, but she thinks rich people get off too easily.
Rich people, she said in an interview, "get all these loopholes. The middle class does not have loopholes."
Mari Lemelson of Edison, N.J., said, "I have a big problem with the millionaires, at least what I understand to be the millionaires' tax breaks."
Jim Martel, an electrician from Weymouth, Mass., said his tax bill is already unfair, but he would be willing to pay more if he thought the money would be spent wisely. He's not optimistic.
"If I thought people in office had the right thing in mind and they were doing the right thing with the money instead of blowing it and wasting it and funding these stupid projects that are totally ridiculous, I wouldn't have a problem with it," Martel said. "But they don't, so that's what bothers me."
Monday is the filing deadline for federal tax returns — three days later than usual because a local holiday is being observed in the nation's capital on Friday, the traditional deadline.
Federal tax receipts are projected to hit their lowest level in 60 years when measured as a share of the overall economy. Tax receipts dipped during the recession and have stayed low in part because Congress has extended Bush-era tax cuts at every income level, leaving federal rates unchanged for much of the past decade.
Residents in many states, however, have faced higher taxes because — unlike the federal government — states, school districts and municipalities must balance their budgets each year.
Results comparable to those in 2007
The share of the public believing their tax bills were fair was nearly identical to an AP poll taken in 2007, even though fewer people than in the past said they expect to get refunds this year. Fifty-one percent of those polled said they expected refunds this year, down from 57 percent in 2009 and 66 percent in 2007.
Many people who don't expect refunds could be in for a pleasant surprise.
Through March 25, about 87 percent of the individual returns processed by the Internal Revenue Service qualified for refunds. That's about the same rate through the same period as last year.
Ultimately, about 85 percent of individual returns qualified for refunds last year, totaling about $360 billion. The refunds averaged $3,000, about the same amount as so far this year.
Economists say tax refunds typically provide a boost to the economy each spring. This year, however, more people say they plan to save, invest or use their refunds to pay down debts.
45 percent plan to save or invest tax refund
Only 27 percent of the people surveyed said they plan to simply spend their tax refund, down from 38 percent in 2009.
Forty-five percent said they would save or invest their refunds, compared with 35 percent in 2009. Forty-four percent said they would pay down debt, compared with 37 percent in 2009.
"A lot of people got caught with too much debt going into this recession and may well take this as an opportunity to reduce their debt level rather than go out and rent that summer house," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "When they're scared, they are more likely to save it than if they are happy and feel like the good times will continue forever."
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted March 24-28 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.