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The Big, Fat Lie Behind Romney's Absurd 47% Argument

The right-wing narrative that 47 percent of households pay no federal income taxes is ridiculous. Here's why.
 
 
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Map of the US showing states where the number of electoral votes is uncertain and where the presidential election could be won or lost.

 

Mitt Romney's narrative -- long-popular among right-wing bloggers and talk-radio squawkers -- that 47 percent of households pay no federal income taxes and 53 percent do is the least honest, least factual talking point to ever be taken seriously in our political discourse for a number of reasons. First and foremost among them is this: it's just not true.

According to studies by the Tax Policy Center, six in 10 households that pay no income taxes are working families having a tough year or two. The authors note, “most of these working households... pay federal income tax in other years, when their incomes are higher.” Many take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), originally a Republican policy that offers a tax break to low-income working parents. According to the authors, “the majority of households that receive the EITC get it for only one or two years at a time, such as when their income drops due to a temporary layoff, and pay federal income tax in most other years.” We have a social safety net, albeit one of the flimsiest in the developed world, and it is doing what it is designed to do – keeping people's heads above water (before the crash, 39.9 percent of households paid no federal income taxes).

In other words, these are not discrete groups. People in the 47 percent (it's actually 46 percent) one year will find themselves in the 53 percent (54 percent) the next year, and vice-versa. These are not different groups of American households separated by different cultures. Those who find themselves in the 47 percent in a given year will, over the course of their working lives, pay a fair share of all taxes, including federal income taxes and those who find themselves in the 53 percent in a given year will, over the course of their lives, enjoy a fair share of government benefits as well

There is also very little significance whatsoever to the fact that 46 percent pay no federal income taxes, which represent only about a fifth of the taxes collected in this country. As such, it's nothing more that a bit of tax trivia. Eighty-two percent of households paid federal payroll taxes last year, which also yield about a fifth of our nation's overall tax revenues (income taxes account for 42 percent of federal revenues and payroll taxes represent 40 percent – same thing).

In 2010, the only year for which Mitt Romney has released tax returns, he and Ann Romney paid around 17.1 percent of their income in federal, state and local taxes combined. According to the Tax Policy Center, in 2011, the poorest 5th of American households paid about 16 percent of their incomes in taxes, on average, and the second poorest 5th paid 21 percent of their incomes – a significantly higher share than the Romneys forked over on over $21 million in income. That the poor don't have enough “skin in the game” – another popular myth on the right – is also just a lie.

Who else doesn't pay federal income taxes? 17 percent are students, the disabled and the unemployed. Most among this group will pay federal income taxes after they find work or graduate. Again, the entire premise that there's a large group of Americans who have developed an “entitlement mentality” is nonsense – students do schoolwork. With a real underemployment rate of almost 15 percent, the unemployed aren't jobless by choice. Then there are active-duty military personnel in war-zones -- combat pay is exempt from federal income taxes. 

More than a fifth of households that pay no federal income taxes are elderly. This is a group that should feel entitled. They paid into Social Security and Medicare during their working years, and are now in retirment. Many are struggling to get by.

There are a good number of rich people among the 47 percent of households that pay no federal income taxes. According to the Tax Policy Center, 18,000 households with incomes over $500,000 – and 4,000 households bringing in over $1 million – paid no federal income taxes in 2011.

Because there is no discrete group of Americans who routinely pay no income taxes year in and year out, it's impossible to say for sure what their partisan loyalties might be, but it's highly likely that a majority of them are Republicans. Around four out of 10 of those households are divided between demographics that lean towards the Dems – students, the poor – and those that lean toward the Republicans – the elderly, disabled veterans. But a majority of that group – six in 10 – are just lower income working families whose incomes fell below a certain threshhold in a given year. And this is where they live:

The Romney campaign is reportedly going to run with this narrative in the coming weeks. The problem is that it only resonates with a minority of hard-right voters who aren't up for grabs anyway. Most Americans understand that half the country isn't indolent and doesn't see themselves of victims of anything but the depression in which we find ourselves today. And that's why, according to a Gallup poll released on Wednesday, only 20 percent of registered voters say that Romney's sneering remarks make them more likely to vote for him, while 36 percent say they're turned of by them.

Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at BillMoyers.com, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter

 
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