These 3 easy questions show whether you're smarter about US taxes than most Americans

ByJames Dennin

Filing your taxes may be a pain, but also (usually) worth the headache: Four in five filers get a refund, amounting to about $3,000 on average according to the IRS. And yet despite jumping through the same hoops year in and year out, Americans are largely confused about how the United States tax system works.

That's according to a new Ipsos poll conducted for NPR, which found that the vast majority of Americans couldn't correctly answer three basic questions about how federal taxes work. While not the same as knowing how to file or save on your own taxes (for help with that, here's Mic's explainer), knowledge of the tax system will make you a better-informed citizen, especially as Congress mulls a massive overhaul to the tax code. 

"Public opinion about tax policy is built very significantly on a misunderstanding of what American tax policy is," said Chris Jackson, a vice president at Ipsos.

Indeed, no more than a third of respondents were able to respond correctly to the following three questions. We've placed the answers further below, if you want to see how you stack up.

1) True or False: For the highest earners, the percent of federal income taxes they pay now is significantly higher than it was in 1980.

Before we reveal the answers, here's a little more detail from the poll, which also included several opinion-based questions. Americans were in fairly close agreement on certain tax topics: Roughly 75% of respondents, for example, said they think money made from work should be taxed at a lower rate than money made from activities like investing. (Currently, capital gains tax on investments remains relatively low compared to income tax.)

"Everyone wants to pay less," Jackson said. "But when you ask them about different income levels, you see a large majority of Americans think wealthier people should pay more."

Across-the-board tax cuts were also relatively popular, even among self-described Democrats: 45% of Democrat respondents said they think taxes should be cut across all income brackets, per the Ipsos findings, versus about 69% of Republicans.

As for the answers to the three questions — which only a third or fewer respondents got right — the correct responses are "False"; "45%"; and "False," respectively.

How did you do?

On question No. 1

The survey found that 44% of Americans think that the highest earners pay significantly more in federal income taxes than they did in 1980 — but the opposite is true. In 1980, the highest tax bracket paid a marginal rate of 70%. Today, the top bracket pays a little less than 40%.

On question No. 2

Americans also seem to overestimate how many people pay income taxes. When asked to select how many people in the U.S. had zero or negative income tax rates, the most common answer was 11%, but the actual number is closer to 45% — almost half of workers. (To be fair, many of those folks are elderly, low-income and/or do pay payroll taxes.)

On question No. 3

The answer is actually "False," because only about half of the federal government's revenues comes from federal income tax. The rest is derived from other sources, including payroll and sales taxes. NPR theorizes that because Americans don't spend as much time thinking about those other taxes — which are levied on employers or at the cash register — they might be underestimating their importance. 

Want to learn more about how taxes work in the United States? Check out this surprising breakdown of where your tax dollars actually go.

April 17, 2016, 2:33 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated with comment from Ipsos.

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