Underreported in the Debt- Ceiling Debates: A Major Shift in Public Attitudes?

July 20, 2011

The debate over closing tax loopholes and ending tax breaks
for wealthy families and corporations has become a hot issue this summer, but
it’s one with a long history.

And
from where I stand as a longtime advocate for children and low-income families,
some of biggest news is what we’re not
hearing much about: a potentially major shift in public attitudes toward tax
policy.


Recent Public Opinion Polls on Taxes and Spending

In
a July poll
of 1,000 adults 58 percent said they supported the Obama
administration’s deficit-reduction plan, which includes raising taxes for corporations
and the wealthy, compared with 36 percent who favor the Republican’s anti-tax approach.

An April public opinion survey for the advocacy organization First Focus found a 72 percent majority supported eliminating loopholes and
federal subsidies to corporations, and 63 percent found eliminating the Bush
tax cuts for families earning over $250,000 a year acceptable.

In
Iowa, an Every Child Matters poll of
residents likely to vote in the 2012 elections found that 69 percent of
all voters “want tax cuts for the wealthy ended before cutting education and
child health programs.”

When I first came to DC as a citizen activist from Michigan,
I was full of energy and optimism. I made my first round of visits to Capitol
Hill, trying to get more funding for children’s services by preparing for the
inevitable question: where are you going to get the money?

Easy! I planned to point out a big tax loophole worth
billions of dollars for the largest insurance companies. Close that loophole
and you can afford more funding for WIC and other important programs for kids.

I got resistance from both Republicans and Democrats.
Staffers in a leading Democrat’s office asked me point-blank if I was getting
paid by small insurance companies to fight the big guys. The staffer in a conservative
Republican’s office said, with a straight face, that the American public was wholeheartedly
anti-tax and wouldn’t want Congress to close a loophole, even if it was only
available to billionaires.

This was 1994. Welcome to DC politics.

Fast forward to 2001. This time I was trying to work
smarter, getting advice from savvy communications experts about how to argue against
proposed tax cuts that would cost the Treasury billions and would benefit only the
richest Americans, giving very little back to ordinary families.

I attended numerous meetings where Bob Greenstein, director
of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, www.cbpp.org
outlined the gaping hole that these tax cuts would create in the federal budget
over the coming decade, inevitably squeezing out funding for programs that
helped low-income and middle-class families at a time when wages were stagnant
and costs for everything from housing to college were rising.

When my colleagues and I tried to rally public support to
oppose the new tax cuts, the savvy pollsters told us it was a fool’s mission.
The public supported the tax cuts—even if they weren’t going to benefit from
them and even if it meant more federal debt.

Why? In part because then, as now, public distrust of government
was running high. The idea that government couldn’t do anything right resonated
with Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform
campaign to “starve the beast." That’s how strong anti-government sentiment was, communications experts Ethel
Klein
and Douglas Gould told me.

Pollster Celinda Lake
told me that her work indicated the public wouldn’t oppose the tax breaks
because middle-class families rarely saw themselves as likely to need
government assistance. Instead, they aspired to be wealthy enough to get those high-level
tax breaks for themselves. (And in fact, most Americans weren’t aware of the
many ways they already benefited from government programs—from child care tax
credits to mortgage write-offs).

The first wave of the so-called “Bush Tax Cuts” was enacted
in record time in 2001, riding in on the supply-side argument that giving more
to the wealthy would boost job growth.

A decade later, some economists tell us that the cost of
these tax cuts (along with two wars) has driven our federal budget from surplus
to deficit and in fact helped slow
job growth. 
The primary legacy of these tax cuts, these economists say, is more
concentrated wealth at the top of the pyramid while middle-class families have
lost ground.

Yet in the current debate, I continue to hear the “trickle
down” arguments—that raising taxes or removing tax breaks will punish “job-creators”
(but it seems to me, they’re really talking about Wall Street CEOs, rather than
business owners).

Recent public opinion polls lead me to ask, this anti-tax
tide finally turning?

The cost of tax loopholes and tax breaks is no longer abstract
for most people. As Congress proposes cuts to every program and service in our
communities and neighborhoods—from education to police and fire departments—the
choice is much more tangible.

Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but after almost 20 years I am
beginning to believe the pendulum is swinging from the extremes of anti-tax
fever to a more balanced middle, where with the right level of funding, government
is seen as a partner in restoring our economic strength, the health and
well-being of our families, and our place in the world.

All we need now is for Congress to listen.


Jan Richter, a clinical social worker and child advocate, writes the SparkAction Update weekly e-newsletter.
Jan Richter

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