Americans aren't nearly as angry at how much they have to pay in taxes as they are at how little they get from government in return, a national poll by The Washington Post suggests.
The results indicate that the so-called "tax revolt" across the country is aimed less at taxes than at the quality of government employes' service, which most people perceive as poor.
People in all regions say, by 3 to 1, that they would vote for any measure such as California's Proposition 13 that would cut federal, state or local taxes.
At the same time, however, two out of three surveyed say they would prefer to see taxes kept at present levels if only government could be made to work, rather than have taxes and the level of government services reduced.
And when asked what they consider the nation's most important problem, only 5 percent in The Post's poll listed taxes - exactly the same percentage as reported 15 years ago by the Gallup Poll.
That does not mean, of course, that people are unconcerned about taxes. But it does put things in a somewhat different perspective from the one most often heard.
Many people see tax cuts as a way of eliminating waste in government and forcing public officials to become more efficient. Many others feel government won't become more efficient even with sharp tax cuts.
In all, seven of every eight persons in The Post survey said they are more concerned about the way tax money is spent than the amount of taxes they pay. The great majority do not want cuts in specific programs, such as welfare.
Their real concern, the survey suggests, is that it is the bureaucracy, not the public, that benefits from taxes. Tax money is seen as largely wasted by local, state and federal governments that have padded payrolls and employes who are overpaid, lazy, discourteous and inefficient.
"This city here, it's probably typical," a retired farmer in the small town of Olney in southeastern Illinois told a Washington Post reporter. "They're raising a hellacious amount of money in taxes . . . You can see them down on Cricket Street down there. They dug it up first, then they repacked it, and then damn if they don't dig it up again because they done it all wrong. That's just wasting tax money."
A 35-year-old former school teacher, now a church worker in Merrick, Long Island, told another Post reporter that Proposition 13 "is not the best way, but unless the politicians start doing something about inflation, it may be the only way. I think it has shocked some of the people in control to realize something has to be done."
The Post poll, in which 1,756 persons were interviewed by telephone from Sept. 7 to Sept. 17, comes at a time when taxes are a key issue in referendum items and elections across the nation. On the ballot in some states are proposals like Proposition 13 to slash local property taxes. Other states have proposals to tie state taxing formulas and spending to growth in state personal income. Virtually everywhere, candidates are trying to use the perceived tax rebellion as a means of holding or gaining public office.
The sense that the tax revolt may be more a complaint about government than the tax load is not exactly new; it arose repeatedly during the debate over Proposition 13 in California.
Howard Jarvis, the so-called father of Proposition 13, described the tax-cutting measure in just such terms the night it passed last June with 65 percent of the vote: "We have a new revolution.We are telling the government, 'Screw you.'"
Nevertheless, the question of how much the tax-cutting fever represents a cry for lower levies and how much it signals a message of dissatisfaction with government has been unclear. The Post poll aimed to take some measure of those sentiments because the distinction is a vital one in American politics.
Conservative politicians, such as Ronald Reagan, have cited concern over taxes as evidence that the public has turned conservative, that Americans want smaller government providing fewer services. Others have said there is no real indication that most people want any reduction in the role of government in American life.
The Post poll pitted these two views against one another in a question dealing with a hypothetical congressional race:
"Candidate A says we should cut spending on government programs and reduce taxes," the question began."Candidate B says we should keep taxes the same but make government programs more efficient so that they do what they are supposed to do." Respondents were asked which candidate they would be inclined to vote for, assuming these were the only differences between them.
Sixty-four percent chose Candidate B, 31 percent Candidate A, and 5 percent were not sure how they would vote. That proportion was roughly the same in all regions of the country and in all segments of the population - among Democrats, Republicans and independents, blacks and whites, poor and affluent, young and old, those who consider themselves liberals as well as those who call themselves moderates and conservatives.
Obviously, those are not the views of a public that is seeking a scaleddown government.
Recent polls by the Roper Organization and by Albert and Susan Cantril add other insights to the way Americans view taxes and tax cuts. In perhaps the most exhaustive poll taken on attitudes toward taxes, the Roper firm earlier this year concluded that, "In the view of the American public, the major problem with the federal income tax system in this country is its unfairness," and that the public places "high priority on tax reform."
Burns Roper, head of the Roper Organization, noted that the term "tax reform" means making the system fairer and eliminating loopholes. "People do not hear the term and think their personal taxes will go up or down," Roper said.
When put side by side, the Roper and Post surveys suggest that the main concerns with taxes are the way they are collected - a perceived unfairness - and the excessive waste they are put to once collected.
The Cantrils' study puts a somewhat different light on the concern over taxes. Taken for the Labor Department and released several weeks ago, the survey notes that "the American people feel the United States is not as well off today as it was five years ago," and that for the first time since such measurements have been taken, "the public feels things are not going to get any better in the future."
Underlying this pessimism, according to Albert Cantril, is the fear that rising inflation is resulting in a lowering of the standard of living. With people like the Merrick, Long Island, church worker in mind, perhaps, Cantril notes that "inflation is being perceived for the first time as a real threat. It is a more urgent concern than it has been."
Cantril said that in his judgment funds returned to the public from tax cuts, because they "are readily accessible," may be viewed by many as one means of coping with inflation.
Whether for that reason or any other, The Post poll clearly shows that Americans would support deep tax cuts. Asked whether they would approve a Proposition 13 type of measure, which would slash 30 percent of local and state revenues where they live, more than 60 percent said yes.
That figure rises to more than 75 percent when the public is asked whether it would favor a 20 percent tax cut. Of those favoring the larger tax cut, two out of every five say that their local governments would become much more efficient should taxes be cut that much.
Despite several federal tax cuts approved in recent years, government figures show that the overall tax burden - state, local and federal - has increased slightly. In 1970, total government revenue was 30.8 percent of the gross national product. By 1977, it had risen to 31.8 percent.
Cantril agrees with The Post finding that reductions in taxes are seen by many as a way of forcing government to perform more effectively and that people appear to be deeply concerned "with equity - the way taxes are collected and use and not the amount."
The frustration with government uncovered in The Post poll is also not new. Public opinion researchers have traced its sharp climb since the middle '60s. The Post survey shows that in some ways that climb is continuing.
For example, only a year ago the Gallup Poll asked whether the "federal government employs to too many or too few people to do the work that must be done." Sixty-seven percent said "too many." The same question was asked in The Post poll, and 80 percent said "too many," with 63 percent saying far too many and 17 percent saying "somewhat too many." More than half of those interviewed in The Post poll believe that federal employes are paid more than people in similar jobs outside the government. As few as 8 percent believe that federal workers are paid less.
Asked what areas they would bite into if spending had to be reduced, 23 percent of those interviewed by The Post volunteered that they would make cuts in the number of government employes, government pay and pensions or other items that they considered outright government waste.
That figure was almost twice as high as proposed cuts in any other area. (Placing second were cuts in welfare. But on probing, it appeared that welfare abuse, and not aid to the needy, was what irritated the public about existing welfare programs.)
Only 37 percent of those interviewed felt that the government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right most of the time, and 73 percent said they felt that "people in the govenment waste a lot of the money we pay in taxes." While strikingly high, these last two figures actually show the government in a slightly better light than any time since 1972.
Perhaps as jarring to people living in Washington as any findings in the poll are the results of a series of comparisons respondents were asked to make between public and private employes in the way they go about their work.
"Think about your dealings with public employes you have come in contact with compared to your dealings with salespeople and office clerks not in the government," those interviewed were asked. "Who do you think are usually more courteous, public employes or salespeople and office clerks?"
Similar comparisons were then sought in terms of speed in getting a job done, effort put into their work, honesty and intelligence. Salespeople and office clerks were chosen for comparison because it was felt by The Post that they would represent in-between levels of nongovernment workers, neither the best nor the worst workers.
The picture drawn shows public employes to be held in terribly low esteem. By 2 to 1 among those who express as opinion, salespeople and office clerks are seen as more courteous and more honest than public employes; by 3 to 1 they are seen as working harder and being speedier in getting a job done. In only one category, that of intelligence, are private and public workers rated about the same.
Those figures, of course, represent the views of the population at large, according to the poll. It might be expected that government workers themselves hold contrary views. They don't appear to.
Eighteen percent of those interviewed said they or someone in their household were employed by government on either the local, state or federal level. These respondents also viewed public workers as being paid more and working less. They gave only marginally better ratings to public employes in every comparison than did the rest of the population.
Shortly after passage of Proposition 13 last June, a low-level public employe, a Los Angeles school janitor, told a Washington Post reporter why he voted in favor of a tax cut despite the fear that reduced revenues might lead to the loss of his job:
"Jarvis talked a lot about waste in government," the janitor said, "but those on the outside can't even really see it. Those of us on the inside see it all the time. It's enough to make you sick."
That sentiment, apparently shared by so many, appears to be the key to understanding what Americans mean when they talk about a tax rebellion.