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Stephen Mihm

The IRS Is Still Trying to Be Your Friend

The tax collector is hoping its latest charm offensive will succeed where previous efforts failed.
Come right in.

Come right in.

Photographer: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

This probably will beggar belief for the millions of Americans struggling to meet this year's April 18 deadline to file their income tax returns, but the Internal Revenue Service says it has gotten better at handling taxpayer questions. Two years ago, only 38 percent of the taxpayers who called for help got the assistance they needed. Last year, the number went up to 70 percent.

That the IRS counts this as progress is not exactly reassuring. But it’s very much in keeping with the long and vexed history of what is known as “taxpayer assistance.” For seven decades, the IRS has struggled to answer questions about the increasingly byzantine tax code. Sometimes it has succeeded; just as often, it has failed.