Mitt Romney versus the 47 percent

September 17, 2012

Over the past few years, Republicans have developed a habit of railing against the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay any federal income taxes. It's a fairly misleading talking point, but it keeps resurfacing. And now Mitt Romney has picked up on it:

Mother Jones's David Corn recently got hold of a leaked recording in which Romney, speaking behind closed doors at a fund-raiser, heaped a good dose of scorn on Obama's supporters:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what …

These are people who pay no income tax. 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect... my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Let's set aside the question of whether this is what Mitt Romney really believes deep down in his heart. Maybe this is what he thinks. Or maybe he just thought it was a good line to buck up jittery donors. What we can say is that the last part is wrong. There is no fair accounting in which 47 percent of Americans take no "personal responsibility and care for their lives." Take this simple breakdown from the Tax Policy Center of what households paid in taxes in 2011:


(Tax Policy Center)

Here's what we have:

— 53.6 percent of households pay the federal income tax. Presumably Romney is okay with these folks.

— 28.3 percent of households pay no federal income tax, but they do pay the payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. That means they don't need Mitt Romney to convince them to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." They already have jobs.

Most of the households in this group don't pay any federal income tax because they qualify for enough deductions that their income tax liability has shrunk to zero. See this Tax Policy Center report for more, which gives an example of “a couple with two children earning less than $26,400. They get an $11,600 standard deduction and four exemptions of $3,700, and that takes their liability to zero." Indeed, it's worth noting that many of these deductions and credits were part of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, which Romney wants to extend.

— 10.3 percent of households pay no federal income tax because they're retired and elderly. Many retirees aren't taxed on their Social Security benefits, which they earned by paying into the system over many years. If Mitt Romney secretly thinks that these households are all irresponsible freeloaders, he has a weird way of showing it, as he keeps insisting that he doesn't want to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits for those over the age of 65.

— That leaves 6.9 percent of households which are non-elderly and have incomes less than $20,000 per year and aren't paying the payroll tax. These poorer households pay neither income taxes nor payroll taxes. Perhaps Romney thinks that they should all pay more in federal taxes. It's hard to say. But this is also a much smaller fraction of Americans.

Meanwhile, just as a reminder, the vast majority of Americans still pay state and local taxes — in fact, these taxes tend to be more regressive. When you add up all the different types of taxes, most income groups in the United States tend to pay an amount that's roughly commensurate with their share of the national income. Here's a relevant report from Citizens for Tax Justice:

 

When federal, state, and local taxes are added together, the United States has a mildly progressive tax system. On average, the rich pay more than the poor. But all groups contribute.

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Dylan Matthews · September 17, 2012