“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... my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives…. The president has been a disappointment. He told you he’d keep unemployment below 8 percent. Hasn’t been below eight percent since. Fifty percent of kids coming out of school can’t get a job. Fifty percent.”
— Mitt Romney, speaking at a private fundraiser in a May 17 video released by Mother Jones magazine .
We will leave aside the politics of this impolitic chat by the GOP nominee. How factual are his statements?
Romney appears to conflate a few things — Obama’s approval rating, the percentage of people who do not pay income taxes and people who rely on government assistance.
There may be some overlap between these groups but they really are not the same thing.
First, let’s start with the notion that nearly half of Americans do not pay income tax. Yes, as of 2011, about 46 percent of American households paid no income tax, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. But this is one of these “facts” that is not very informative. “Income taxes” are just one type of tax that people pay, and for most working Americans — about three-quarters — payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare far exceed what they pay in income taxes.
(For people confused about these terms, income taxes are based on your income, minus certain deductions. Payroll taxes represent your contribution to old-age programs, and in the case of Social Security are capped once your income hits $110,100. Your employer also pays an equal amount of payroll taxes, which in effect reduces your wages.)
In other words, substitute the phrase “federal taxes” for “income taxes,” and then the picture changes dramatically. Indeed, when all federal taxes are included, the percentage of people who pay no taxes drops to 10 percent or lower, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Moreover, if some people do not pay income taxes, it is because of policies often advocated by Republicans, such as child tax credits and tax benefits for the working poor. President Richard M. Nixon offered an early version of the earned income tax credit, and it was enacted under Gerald Ford and expanded under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) pushed for the child tax credit — signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1997 and later expanded by George W. Bush in 2004.
Some 44 percent of those who do not pay income taxes are in that category because they get tax benefits aimed at the elderly, while another 30 percent benefit from tax credits for children or for the working poor, according to a paper published by the Tax Policy Center.
But not all of these people are automatically Obama supporters. In fact, according to a map published by the Tax Foundation, eight of the top 10 states with the lowest income-tax liability are the heart of Romney country — the Deep South. The only exceptions are Florida, a battleground state, and New Mexico, which leans toward Obama. Meanwhile, most of the states with the lowest levels of nonpayers are Obama states.
As for other entitlements, of course Social Security and Medicare are reserved for the elderly — and are generally popular. But it seems simplistic to think these are all Obama voters, especially since polling indicates that the Republican share of the vote among white seniors has increased in each of the last five elections, to 58 percent in 2008.
Two of the other assertions in Romney’s spiel are wrong. When Romney says 50 percent of people can’t get a job, he is greatly simplifying an Associated Press survey earlier this year that concluded that about 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed. This was the highest level in 11 years, since the dot-com bust in 2000. But underemployed is not the same as not getting a job.
“A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don’t fully use their skills and knowledge,” the news agency said. “Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.”
As for the claim that Obama promised that unemployment would be below 8 percent, Romney has already earned Two Pinocchios for that.
The Pinocchio Test
Perhaps it is too much to expect a politician to be entirely accurate in a closed-door speech, but one would think he would have even less need to stretch the truth if he thought the cameras were not rolling. Unfortunately for Romney, at least one camera captured his misleading picture of the electorate.
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