Debate Center, 10/02

W ho are Mitt Romney’s 47 percent?

Last week a short video clip provided by the publication Mother Jones, appeared from an event several months ago in which Mitt Romney was speaking to a group at a private fundraiser. In his comments Romney said 47 percent of Americans would almost automatically vote for President Barack Obama because they were “dependent” on the government.

“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.”

Romney argued that these voters would support Obama, in part because they received government benefits and paid no federal income taxes. Those remarks have become a focal point in the campaign. Democrats and the media have pounced on the comments, arguing that the condescending clip shows contempt for half the country and callousness towards the poor, which is unbecoming for someone seeking the presidency.

So who are the 47 percent and why are they not required to pay any income taxes? According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, 53.6 percent of Americans pay a portion of their income in federal income taxes, and 46.4 percent don’t.

Of those who don’t, 61 percent (28.3 percent of the population) pay payroll taxes, such as Social Security and Medicare, but have enough deductions and tax credits that their federal income tax liability has shrunk to zero. In other words, 81.9 percent of the population is gainfully employed and sends some measure of their income to the federal government, but in that 81.9 percent is 28.7 percent who receive all that they pay into the federal government back in the form of a tax return. Many of these individuals are also legally entitled to the Earned Income Credit (EIC), which helps low-income filers hold on to and even get more money from the federal government. Many eligible candidates for the EIC are single parents, and were eligible to receive a maximum of $5,666 for tax year 2011 with the credit.

As for the rest, making up 10.3 percent of the population, which is 22 percent of non-income taxpayers, they are the elderly and are likely retired. These individuals receive in retirement, social security or other retirement income at levels low enough to exempt them from paying additional income taxes. This group has likely paid off their mortgages and is earning reduced income in the form of modest pensions and Social Security benefits. If they are making less than $10,950 (single), $20,150 (married filing jointly) and $13,650 (head of household) in annual pension benefits alone, then their Social Security is not taxable and they have no filing requirement.

A further 6.9 percent are non-elderly but have incomes below $20,000, which in most cases puts them below the poverty line. Some of these individuals are under the age of 65, perhaps living in low-income areas. Some in this group possibly enjoy the benefits of low-income housing, food stamps, government subsidized medical.  They make less than $9,500 (single), $19,000 (married filing jointly), and $12,200 (head of household). They have no filing requirement and do not work. This could also include the ultra rich who pay no taxes thanks to tax loopholes.  It also includes many students living off student loans or with their parents.

Polling suggests that despite his attack on the 47 percent, some portion of that group, (for example a large percentage of those over 65 and on pensions) will support Romney in this election.  It is also clear that considerable numbers of the 53 percent will support President Obama. Sometimes political support does not fall neatly into the economic stereotypes that a politician, when speaking to a group of his or her own supporters, tries to fit them into with the turn of a phrase.

Forum Question of the Week:

“Exactly who are the 47 percent?”

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