National News

A Middle-Class Tax Cut? Americans Aren’t Buying It

Posted December 15, 2017 7:51 p.m. EST

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) talks to reporters as she boarded the Capitol subway, in Washington, Dec. 14, 2017. Planning to unveil a final bill on Friday and voting early next week, Republicans on Thursday faced the possible defection of another senator, Marco Rubio. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

Republican congressional leaders say their tax overhaul would raise wages, accelerate economic growth and give middle-class families a badly needed tax cut.

They are having a hard time convincing Americans of those claims.

Many polls have shown that the tax bill is highly unpopular with voters, and growing more so. And a new survey shows that a large majority expects to see no personal benefit from the legislation.

According to the survey of 5,100 adults, conducted this week for The New York Times by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey, only a third of Americans think their taxes will go down in 2018 if the bill passes next week as widely expected.

That is at odds not only with the Republican talking points but also with the assessment of most economists who have studied the bill. The Tax Policy Center, a research group, recently found that under the Senate version of the plan, roughly three-quarters of American households would pay less in taxes next year. Last-minute changes made by a House-Senate conference committee could lead to a tax cut for even more Americans.

The confusion probably stems in part from the complexity of the bill, which would increase the size of some tax breaks while reducing or eliminating others. And it could also reflect the unpopularity of President Donald Trump.

Cindy Kelly, an art director for a television station in Orlando, Florida, is the kind of person who might ordinarily support the tax bill. A political moderate, she said she was optimistic that a corporate tax cut could lead companies to create jobs and increase wages. And as a middle-class resident of a low-tax state, she would most likely come out ahead.

But Kelly, 54, said she doubted that the bill would cut taxes for her or other middle-class Americans. She said her skepticism stemmed from one factor: Trump.

“I just can’t be too happy about it overall,” Kelly said. “I have such a strong distrust of the president.”

The SurveyMonkey poll, taken before the final tax bill was out, found that 58 percent of Americans disapproved of the bill, while only 37 percent supported it. An earlier version of the poll, conducted in November, found 52 percent disapproval.

In the latest poll, only 29 percent of respondents said they felt that the plan would lead to substantially higher economic output a decade from now, and only 18 percent believed Republican assertions that the bill would not add to the federal deficit. (Even two-thirds of Republicans said either that the bill would increase the deficit over the next decade or that they weren’t sure.)

The skepticism is shared by economists, who overwhelmingly say the bill would increase the deficit while giving only a modest boost to the economy.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the skepticism about how the bill would affect taxpayers personally. Using demographic and other data provided by survey respondents, The Times estimated how likely they were to receive a tax cut. Even among people with more than a 90 percent chance of getting a cut, about half said they did not expect to get one.

Jessica Brescher, who works for a pharmaceutical company, has been trying to figure out how the bill would affect her. A resident of high-tax New Jersey, Brescher said she worried that Republicans’ plan to repeal or reduce the deduction for state and local taxes could make her home unaffordable and force her to move. On the other hand, as the mother of twin boys, she would benefit from a planned increase in the child tax credit.

In the SurveyMonkey poll, Brescher, 34, said she did not expect a tax cut under the bill. She later plugged her information into an online calculator, which told her that she could expect a modest tax cut next year. But with the bill’s details changing seemingly every day, Brescher now doesn’t know what to think.

“I’m a scientist, I know numbers, but I don’t know money numbers,” Brescher, who holds a master’s degree in epidemiology, said in a follow-up interview. “I don’t have the patience or really the skill set to read the tax bill for myself.” Brescher’s confusion is hardly surprising. Trump and congressional Republicans promised a broad-based tax cut, particularly for the middle class. The emerging bill, however, is a web of complex provisions that would cut taxes for some people, raise them for others and have different effects in different years. Even families that look similar on paper could be affected differently depending on where they live and how they earn their money.

“It comes down to a bunch of idiosyncratic factors,” said Mark Mazur, a Treasury Department official in the Obama administration who now directs the Tax Policy Center. “You really have to parse through the details.”

Sentiment about the bill seems strongly colored by feelings about the president. Backing remains strong among supporters of Trump: 80 percent of them say they approve of the bill. Among those who don’t approve of Trump, the figure is only 10 percent.

Geoffrey Cantley, an Army recruiter in rural Virginia, said he didn’t know whether he’d get a tax cut or a tax increase under the bill. But he said Trump’s efforts to simplify the tax code would enable him to file without a tax preparer, saving money. And he said Trump deserved the benefit of the doubt.

“I don’t think he’s getting a fair shake in the coverage he’s getting,” Cantley said. “I think the economy’s doing a lot better.”

Republicans said this week that public doubts would fall away once the bill becomes law and tax cuts begin appearing in paychecks. They cited polls from 1986, showing that most Americans did not feel that year’s tax bill would help them, either.

“Whatever the polling data is that’s out there today doesn’t recognize just how powerful this bill is going to be to put more money in the pockets of hardworking families,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the majority whip. Recent history suggests that view is overly optimistic. In 2004, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans believed they had been helped by President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which had, in fact, been designed to benefit all workers. Polls after the 2009 stimulus bill, which cut taxes across the board for workers, showed many Americans did not believe they had benefited.

“Nothing in my experience suggests that the views people have about the tax cuts — whether justified or not — will change after they start actually being affected by them,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard Kennedy School economist who advised President Barack Obama during and after the 2009 stimulus bill.

Samuel Bruce, a financial analyst in Keller, Texas, has followed the tax bill closely but still isn’t sure whether he would benefit. A father of two, he would be able to claim the higher child tax credit, but as the owner of his own home and a rental property, he said the limit on property-tax deductions could hurt him.

Still, Bruce said he was more concerned with the broader economic impact. He said he doubted that most businesses would pass tax cuts on to workers, and he worried about how the deficit would affect his daughters, now 7 and 8, when they grow up.

“Politicians are all about ‘take care of today,'” Bruce said. “I’m more worried about the future, really.”

How the Poll Was Conducted

The data in this article came from an online survey of 5,100 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Dec. 11-14. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus 2 percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.