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Understanding the Public's Attitudes towards Redistribution through Taxation


  • Rebbecca Reed-Arthurs


  • Steven M. Sheffrin

    () (Department of Economics, Tulane University)


This paper explores the public's expressed attitudes towards redistribution, then addresses three important gaps in the literature on redistribution. First, studies of support for redistribution have used data focused on desires for transfers from the rich to the poor or to the poor in general, but redistributive polices may also benefit the middle class. Second, experimental research has shown that general views about redistribution may differ from concrete judgments about specific situations-yet much of the existing research uses responses to abstract questions. Finally, there is fundamental uncertainty as to what the public actually means when it suggests preferred distributions of the tax burden-are they expressing pure, ideal preferences, or combining these with their own views of the disincentive effects of higher tax rates? We use data from two nationally representative surveys on taxation and fairness as well as an experiment to address these issues. We find that Americans have some interest in redistribution to both the middle class and the poor. While demand for redistribution to the poor is influenced by many factors (including measures of altruism, political ideology and values) demand for redistribution to the middle class appears to be driven by self-interest and knowledge of the tax system. We find the determinants of demand to be similar under both abstract and concrete question forms. Finally, the experimental results suggest that not only does the public not include incentive effects into their expressions for desired progressivity; but that they do not believe they should be included-in other words, the public separates judgments of progressivity from judgments of economic efficiency.

Suggested Citation

  • Rebbecca Reed-Arthurs & Steven M. Sheffrin, 2010. "Understanding the Public's Attitudes towards Redistribution through Taxation," Working Papers 1005, Tulane University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:tul:wpaper:1005

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Gruber, Jon & Saez, Emmanuel, 2002. "The elasticity of taxable income: evidence and implications," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 84(1), pages 1-32, April.
    2. Bernasconi, Michele, 2006. "Redistributive taxation in democracies: Evidence on people's satisfaction," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 22(4), pages 809-837, December.
    3. Nattavudh Powdthavee, 2009. "How important is rank to individual perception of economic standing? A within-community analysis," The Journal of Economic Inequality, Springer;Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, vol. 7(3), pages 225-248, September.
    4. Alesina, Alberto & Giuliano, Paola, 2009. "Preferences for Redistribution," IZA Discussion Papers 4056, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
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    Cited by:

    1. Lopez-Calva Luis F. & Rigolini Jamele & Torche Florencia, 2016. "Is there such thing as middle class values? Class differences, values and political orientations in Latin America," Journal of Globalization and Development, De Gruyter, vol. 7(2), pages 1-12, December.

    More about this item


    survey data; incentives; redistribution;

    JEL classification:

    • H24 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Personal Income and Other Nonbusiness Taxes and Subsidies
    • H20 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - General

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