When asked how much, if any, is an acceptable amount to cheat on your income taxes, 87 percent of respondents said, "not at all." Only 11 percent said, "a little here and there" or "as much as possible."
Ninety-five percent said personal integrity influences them to honestly report their taxes, while 63 percent said fear of an audit did. Only 41 percent said they are honest because they believe their neighbors are, too.
The telephone poll of 1,500 randomly chosen adults was sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service Oversight Board, which released the findings Tuesday. The findings are in line with previous surveys done by the board.
Board Chairman Paul Cherecwich Jr. noted the importance of honesty in a tax system that asks people to report their own financial information. There are many backstops in the system, with employers and financial institutions also reporting taxpayer information to the IRS. But the IRS only audits 1 percent of individual returns each year, according to agency statistics.
"Personal integrity is at the core of our self-assessment tax system," Cherecwich said. "The overwhelming majority of American taxpayers play by the rules and expect everyone else to do the same.
Forty-three percent said they think the IRS maintains a proper balance between tax enforcement and taxpayer service; 30 percent said they think the agency devotes too many resources to enforcement.
Elizabeth Maresca, a former trial attorney for the IRS, said most taxpayers don't have much of an opportunity to cheat on their taxes.
Two-thirds of individual filers don't itemize their deductions, instead taking the standard deduction. And for those who do itemize, many of their claims are verified by financial institutions that are required to notify the IRS.
For example, if you earn interest on a bank account or pay interest on a home mortgage, financial institutions send forms to both you and the IRS. Employers send wage information to the IRS.
"The vast majority of people, I think, don't even have an opportunity to cheat on their taxes," said Maresca, an associate law professor at Fordham University. "They are so limited in what they can do and take and what breaks they are entitled to. You can't pretend that you have a kid you don't have. You can't claim your dog."
The survey comes as federal agencies, including the IRS, brace for automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, which is scheduled to take effect Friday. In a letter to Congress, the Treasury Department said the IRS won't be able to review as many tax returns if the sequester takes effect, which "could result in billions of dollars in lost revenue and further complicate deficit reduction efforts." The agency didn't offer specifics, but said, "In recent years each dollar spent on the IRS has returned at least $4 in additional enforcement revenue."
In the poll, 62 percent of respondents said the IRS should receive extra funding to enforce tax laws and ensure taxpayers pay what they owe. Sixty-seven percent said the IRS should get more money to assist taxpayers by phone and in person.
The poll was conducted from Aug. 30 to Sep. 17 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,500 randomly chosen adults and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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