Bad CBS/NYT poll question on tax burden

04/21/2010 05:43 pm 17:43:13 | Updated May 25, 2011

If you want to see what the public believes about the size of the federal income burden, this CBS/New York Times poll question is not the way to do it:

On average, about what percentage of their household incomes would you guess most Americans pay in federal income taxes each year -- less than 10 percent, between 10 and 20 percent, between 20 and 30 percent, between 40 and 50 percent, or more than 50 percent, or don't you know enough to say?

As a reader pointed out to me, there's no way for a respondent to know how to answer this question due to the ambiguity inherent in combining "most Americans" with "[o]n average." Many respondents might think that "most Americans" can't be grouped into one of those categories, and others might be confused by how to define "most."

As it turns out, the bottom four quintiles (i.e. the bottom 80%) pay an average effective individual federal income tax rate of less than ten percent -- an answer that was given by only 5% of respondents to the poll. However, as David Leonhardt recently pointed out, federal income taxes are only part of the overall federal tax burden; the average effective federal tax rate including payroll taxes, corporate taxes, and federal excise taxes is 22%. This number, rather than the income tax burden, is probably the more relevant one to poll on since most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income tax. Let's hope CBS and the Times go back to the drawing board with this question.

Update 4/21 8:24 PM: In response to comments on my blog, I've updated the post to clarify some ambiguous language and to correct an error (following Leonhardt, I wrongly classified capital gains taxes as separate from, rather than part of, individual federal income taxes).