Since the days of
The Scarlet Letter
and through the Clinton administration, Americans have loved to poleax cheating spouses.
But can we work ourselves into the same persecuting, impeachment-threatening, talk-show-style-chair-throwing frenzy over tax evasion?
We almost could, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. The center found that 88% of respondents said that it's immoral for a married person to cheat, while 79% said that it's immoral to not report all of one's income to the Internal Revenue Service.
Moreover, a survey released this year by the IRS Oversight Board found that 88% of Americans feel it's "not at all" acceptable to cheat on your income taxes, the highest level since 1999, when the board started tracking taxpayer attitudes.
"I'm more afraid of the IRS than my significant other," says Cheryl Smith, a teacher from New Jersey. "The IRS can be more devastating."
Even so, she didn't show any love for Uncle Sam. "Anytime people can get away with
cheating on their taxes, they should get away with it," she says. "Spouses are different. It's morally wrong to cheat on them."
Like many others, she bemoans the notion that it's hard to get away with "creative" tax filings unless you can afford a crafty accountant. So Smith is forced to file honestly.
Matter of Distrust
Underscoring Smith's talk of IRS jitters, getting people to discuss tax evasion was akin to pulling teeth. Most were willing to kvetch at great length about the "scum," "losers" and "idiots" who would cheat on a significant other, but upon hearing the word "underreport," they blanched and fled.
"There's just too much gray area," says a paralegal who chose to remain nameless and spent most of our conversation looking over my shoulder for tax collectors lying in wait. "If the accountant says it's OK to bend this rule or that, well then it's OK, even if it's not OK. You know?"
Still others were shocked about the number of people willing to be judgmental about tax fraud.
"I think most people cheat on their taxes, and most people try not to cheat on their significant others," says Kim Bennett, an artist from Oakland, Calif.
At least with the first part of Bennett's comment, the IRS might be inclined to agree. In 2001, the last year for which the numbers were tabulated, the difference between what taxpayers should have paid and what they actually paid on a timely basis came to $345 billion.
The IRS says that more than 80% of this gap comes from underreported income. The number of people who just didn't file or underpaid paled in comparison.
"The magnitude of the tax gap highlights the critical role of enforcement in keeping our system of tax administration healthy," IRS commissioner Mark Everson said in a statement.
Normally, April 15 is the deadline for filing taxes, but because it falls on a Saturday this year, Americans have until April 17 to mail their returns. Residents of six eastern states and the nation's capital, whose returns are handled by the IRS processing center in Andover, Mass., have an added day because April 17 is a Massachusetts state holiday.
Keeping a Secret
When it comes to cheating on a spouse, there's a behavior gap there, as well. The Pew Center cites a National Science Foundation report that says 15% of married or formerly married adults say they've had sex outside of their marriages.
The consequences of an affair are far more grave than being punished for tax evasion, says Bennett. "Having a marriage fall apart is a horrible thing that I would like to avoid," she says. "It ruins lives." While she doesn't "cheat" on her taxes, she does "do the utmost" to avoid paying more than she absolutely must.
"The IRS is really quite discreet, so no one will have to know that you didn't pay up. Plus, you can say it was a mistake," she says. "Whereas if you meet someone at a hotel at noon every day for six years, you can't say it was an accident."
Michael Clarke, a children's television show producer from Brooklyn, N.Y., took the high road, saying it wasn't proper to cheat on either. "Taxes or your spouse, cheating will eventually come back to bite you," he says.
However, Clarke concedes that tax rules seem a little more bendable. "You get married and you make a commitment to a person and to your loved ones and to God," he says. "The state created taxes. You don't promise
a higher power that you'll pay them."