On Monday, Mother Jones released a video recorded in May of presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in the Boca Raton home of “private equity party boy” and “sexy party” host, Marc Leder. A hidden camera caught controversial remarks about Israel, Iran, and a joke about being more electable if his parents had been born in Mexico, but the topic of this post is Romney’s use of the 47% Meme.
The 47% Meme is the idea that half of Americans take from rather than contribute to tax coffers. It sometimes surfaces in the form of the “takers vs. makers” frame. I have encountered this “argument” for years on Fox News, so it is surprising to see it gaining national attention now. Romney did a superb job articulating the 47% Meme in response to a question of how he might win in November:
“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.”
Many myths start with a kernel of truth. The 47% Meme is loosely based on the statistic that 47% of Americans pay no income tax (down to 46% in 2011). This meme is wildly dishonest since people pay a host of other federal, state, and local taxes. It’s about as honest as saying a person doesn’t eat vegetables because she only eats carrots, celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, and cabbage, but not broccoli.
So who is paying taxes, and what taxes are they paying?
Federal Income Tax
The Tax Policy Center finds that two main groups comprise the 46% who do not pay federal income tax: (1) The poor whose subsistence-level income is not taxable, and (2) those who receive tax expenditures. This chart shows that the lion’s share of tax expenditures goes to senior citizens, children, and the working poor, with the notable exception of 7,000 millionaires who paid no income tax in 2011.
Other Federal Taxes
But enough about income tax since this narrow focus only serves to further the misleading 47% Meme. The chart below shows a more accurate picture of who pays federal taxes. If we don’t count retirees, only 8% of Americans pay no income or payroll taxes.
Americans also pay federal excise tax on gas, liquor, cigarettes, airline tickets, and a long list of other products, so virtually every American pays federal taxes in some form. And contrary to the 47% Meme, poor and middle-class Americans actually pay a greater percentage of their income in federal payroll and excise taxes than wealthier Americans.
State and Local Taxes
When it comes to state and local taxes, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that the poor pay more in state and local taxes in every state except Vermont. As the chart below indicates, state and local taxes are regressive, meaning that those who can least afford to pay, pay more.
Romney has apologized for the inelegance of his statements, but stands by their substance, despite ample data debunking the dependency (above) and entitlement bases for the 47% Meme. I don’t believe that Romney believes that half of the people in the U.S. are pathetically entitled “victims.” He is a smart person, and this is a ludicrous line of reasoning. But what does it say about our bitterly partisan nation that heaping unmitigated scorn on the poor brings in big bucks from the base?