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Examining Public Support for Taxation and Public Services

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School
September 28, 2021

Education. Low-income housing. Healthcare. Childcare. These are among the crucial public services that are oftentimes supported with public funds. As many states and cities anticipate upcoming elections, understanding the public’s willingness to continue supporting these services via tax dollars is an important piece of candidate success.

A recent Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, conducted by the VCU L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, sought to better understand the extent to which Virginians support, or do not support, paying increased taxes to increase support for public services. These services included public education (65%); programs that support low-income families such as financial support for housing, food and childcare (59%); and the maintenance of healthcare programs at their current level (56%). Respondents were less likely to support a tax hike to maintain criminal justice reform (49%) and universities and higher education (39%) at their current levels.

The poll featured landline and mobile telephone interviews from August 4-15, 2021, with a representative sample of 823 adults living in Virginia. It had a margin of error of 5.23%.

“The issues confronting the people of Virginia are among the most troubling and impactful on everyday activity in state history,” said former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. “The uncertainty or indecision of many voters should be concerning. The more factual information and transparency shared with the people might elicit more assuring responses. This applies to those in office as well as those seeking to be elected.”

Public opinion varied by gender and political party. Overall, women were more willing than men to pay taxes toward healthcare (60% vs. 50%, respectively). Democrats and Republicans were divided on paying more in taxes to maintain current levels of support for any service (public education, healthcare, low-income programs, criminal justice, universities and higher education), with the majority of Democrats willing to pay more and the majority of Republicans being unwilling to pay more.

The greatest divide was on the topic of programs to support low-income families (e.g. financial support for housing, food and childcare), where 86% of Democrats were willing to pay more in taxes to maintain current levels versus 31% of Republicans.

The majority of independents were willing to support an increase in taxes to maintain current levels of public education (57%), and 50% of independents were willing to pay more in taxes to maintain current levels of support to low-income families. Less than half of independents were willing to support a tax increase to maintain current service levels in the remaining categories of healthcare (42%), criminal justice (40%) and universities and higher education (33%).

Public opinion is also divided on who should be responsible for paying if and when taxes are increased. An April 2021 poll from the Pew Research Center identified factors that bother Americans about tax systems. Many participants said that they were bothered by corporations not paying their fair share of taxes and wealthy people not paying their fair share (81% and 80% respectively). Fewer were bothered by the amount that they personally pay in taxes (66%) and the idea that poor people don’t pay their fair share (32%).

Republicans were more likely than Democrats (59% versus 41%) to say that they personally pay more than their fair share in taxes, as were those in higher income brackets compared to those in lower income brackets (52% versus 38%).

Recent data compiled by Gallup found similar results, with the majority of Americans supporting increased taxes on the wealthy. However, Gallup polls also found that reducing income inequality and wealth inequality is not a top priority for the majority of Americans. These polls also found that many, especially Republicans, have concerns about government in general and thus do not support additional government intervention in the nation’s economic system.

As our communities continue to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, recent hurricanes and other major issues, public funds at both the state and federal level must be spent wisely to ensure that needed public services are adequately supported. The extent to which the public supports directing taxes toward various public services can have a major impact on the extent to which these services can be provided, and keeping an eye on these polls can provide insight into the decisions of policymakers as they work to decide the future of these programs.

Author: The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School aims to enhance, promote, and celebrate the research of Wilder School faculty and students. The Office also oversees the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, as well as research from the Wilder School’s Centers and Institutes.

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