NIU sociologist Jeffrey Kidder leads new study that finds everyday tax talk is ‘morally charged’
As U.S. presidential election campaigns heat up, candidates can expect an earful of complaints over taxes. Now a new study led by a Northern Illinois University sociologist argues that American middle-class hostilities toward the federal income tax follow a common discourse rooted in moral beliefs.
“We propose that everyday tax talk among the middle class is not simply about economics or free markets. Tax talk is morally charged,” NIU sociologist Jeffrey Kidder said.
“In this study, we demonstrate how people associate the income tax with a violation of the moral principle that hard work should be rewarded,” he added. “Our research has implications for how policymakers should frame fiscal issues. Because people intertwine fiscal issues with morality, approaches to tax policy that only emphasize economic benefits for the working and middle classes do not resonate with everyday understandings about what taxes mean to people.”
Kidder co-authored the study with sociologist Isaac William Martin of the University of California, San Diego. Their findings are published in the current online issue of the journal, Symbolic Interaction.
“Our research further suggests that when Americans lash out at ‘takeovers,’ ‘massive taxes’ and ‘bailouts,’ they are locating these fiscal issues within a more general cultural narrative of a hard-working middle class besieged on all sides,” Kidder said. In other words, their tax talk “is about dollars, but it is also about a moral sense of what is right.”
The researchers conducted 24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation. The interviews were conducted during the first quarter of 2009.
“Southerners, whites and small business owners are three groups generally known to be vocal in their opposition to taxes,” Kidder said. “We wanted to get a sense of how they talk about taxes in everyday life.”
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