New poll on wealth, taxes doesn't tell whole story

A new poll on the amount that the wealthy pay in taxes seems straightforward: Fully 68 percent of Americans agree that the rich pay "too little."

But there are two important details missing from the Associated Press survey, released Sunday. First, is this number higher than previous surveys, therefore showing stronger support over time? And second, do Americans even know what the wealthy pay in taxes?


Protesters participate in an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in 2011. Income inequality was at the forefront of this movement.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Protesters participate in an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in 2011. Income inequality was at the forefront of this movement.

As it relates the first question, the answer is no. For more than two decades Americans have consistently been in favor of taxing the wealthy more, regardless of the level of income inequality, and no matter the current tax rate. Since Gallup began asking Americans whether they think the wealthy pay "too little" in taxes 20 years ago, it's mostly held steady at around 68 percent.

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The second question is more important. Although there is no indication in the survey data that the respondents were asked how much the wealthy pay in taxes, one exit interview suggests that many Americans think the rich pay a lower tax rate than the rest of America.

"I think the more you make, the more taxes you should pay," Bob Montgomery, of Martinsville, Va., told The AP. "I can't see where a man who makes $50,000 a year pays as much taxes as somebody that makes $300,000 a year."

If that were true, then it's understandable why middle-class and low-income workers would want the rich to pay more. But it's not true, at least not broadly.

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Yes, there are cases where the wealthy pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries because they make their fortunes from capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate than salaried income. But generally speaking, the more you earn, the higher the percentage you pay in taxes.

Want to land a billionaire? Here's where to start
Want to land a billionaire? Here's where to start   

Take a look at this chart from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, which shows the different income groups and what they pay in taxes. The bottom 20 percent pays an average 3.1 percent of their expanded cash income in taxes. The middle quintile, or middle class, pays 13.7 percent. The top one percent pays 33.4 percent, and the top 0.1 percent pays 35.7 percent.

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It's only among the very top slice of a few hundred super-earners in America that the numbers start to change. Among the top 400 earners in America, the average tax rate was 16.7 percent in 2012, the latest period measured by the IRS. That's slightly higher than the rate paid by the middle class.

But for the most part, the rich pay more than the vast majority of Americans. The question is, do the vast majority of Americans know just how much they pay?

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