Talk about rich with irony. There’s Republican Mitt Romney denigrating 47 percent of Americans for not paying their fair share of taxes. He’s the multi-millionaire, after all, who refuses to release his income taxes over the past several years because all bets are that those reports will show he dodges hundreds of thousands in annual tax payments available to the super wealthy. Romney admits that he limits his tax liability to 10-13 percent annually — far less than the 35 percent most people in his income bracket pay.
Much has been made about this particular misstep in his campaign, but it’s important to note that this was not a verbal gaffe. As he has said in follow-up interviews, he stands by his comment. It was “not eloquently stated,” he admitted, but at heart he believes in what he said.
It is also what many within the Republican Party stand for. Party leaders take great pains not to speak about it publicly — because it is political suicide — but it has been obvious for the past decade or more that the party’s economic platform is based firmly on the principles Romney expressed to his millionaire donors. That platform roughly boils down to a tough love dictate on personal responsibility: “America won’t solve its problems until the ne’er-do-wells get off their rear-ends and stop asking for handouts.” Such perceptions are reflected in Romney’s comments that the 47 percent consider themselves “victims” and therefore deserve to be “dependent on government.”
Tens of thousands of angry white, older men across the country were silently nodding their heads in approval when Romney’s comments first surfaced through a video released by Mother Jones Magazine earlier this week. But then they started looking at the validity of that number, and just who those folks might be.
According to the Tax Policy Center, it’s actually 46 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes. The breakdown is: 23 percent don’t pay taxes because they are too poor to meet the minimum threshold. For a family of four, that threshold is $26,400; 10 percent of those who receive benefits for the elderly (Social Security) don’t pay federal income taxes; 7 percent are those whose incomes are supplemented by the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit and the child care tax credit — those special benefits, passed with overwhelming Republican and Democratic support under the Bush tax cuts, allowed a family of four to earn up to $45,775 last year and pay no income taxes; the final 6 percent pay no federal income taxes because their incomes are low and they benefit from standard deductions like tax credits for education (think students), those on disability, interest on municipal bonds, etc.
If you dig into the demographics, a lot of poor, white, elderly Americans — many of whom are Republicans — fall into those categories and make up a good chunk of the 46 percent. Also interesting is that the states with the highest concentrations of residents who pay no federal income tax are Mississippi, Georgia and Arkansas — three solidly Republican states, while the lowest concentrations of non-payers are in Alaska, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the latter two of which are solidly Democrat.
Let’s also look at those government benefits that Romney thinks are so compelling that these 46 percent would rather laze around and live off the government dole than get a good job. A total of 49 percent of Americans live in households that receive at least one type of federal benefit: food stamps go to 15 percent of the population, or 46.7 million; 48.8 million or 16-plus percent were enrolled in Medicare, the health program for the elderly without which many of those elderly would live in poverty; veterans who serve 20 years or more receive federal benefits; and in 2012, 56 million Americans will benefit from Social Security. A good percent of those beneficiaries are Archie Bunker types.
And, of course, it is not true that 46 percent of Americans pay no federal taxes. Most (28.3 percent) pay into federal coffers through payroll taxes that fund Medicare and Social Security; and then there are federal excise taxes on gasoline and other specialty items, and most pay state and local taxes on income and property. A report from the Congressional Budget Office noted that the poorest 20 percent of households (average income of $18,400) paid 4 percent in federal income taxes; the next-to-the bottom fifth — those with incomes between $20,500 and $34,300 in 2007 — paid an average of 10.6 percent of their incomes in federal taxes.
Moreover, said the CBO report, “even these figures greatly understate low-income households’ total tax burden because these households also pay substantial state and local taxes. Data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy show that the poorest fifth of households paid a stunning 12.3 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes in 2011. When all federal, state, and local taxes are taken into account, the bottom fifth of households pays about 16 percent of their incomes in taxes, on average. The second-poorest fifth pays about 21 percent.”
Do Republicans really want to make a case that the poor people of America are not paying their fair share of federal income taxes? And do they really think that government doesn’t have a role to play in helping this half of the country make ends meet today so tomorrow’s future is more promising?
The Republican problem is that their platform blatantly favors the rich and denigrates the poor and middle class. That forces GOP leadership to rely on bogus rhetoric to sell anger and resentment to the party faithful based on half-truths that they hope their followers don’t discover. The party’s goal is to motivate voters through emotion, and not base party policy on rational arguments that parse what’s in the best interest of the nation.
Romney’s comments at that private fundraiser in Florida pulled back the curtain, al a the Wizard of Oz, and exposed the sham — in all its ugliness — among party leadership. Whether that revelation will be seen as a betrayal to rank-and-file Republicans remains to be seen.
Angelo S. Lynn