Late last week, Romney took it back, calling his remark “just completely wrong” and stressing that he has always cared about “the 100 percent.” But we had to wonder where that 47 percent number came from in the first place. Is it true that nearly half of America really pay no income taxes?
Well, kinda. Sort of.
According to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, about 46 percent of American households* paid no federal income taxes in 2011. But that doesn’t mean all those people didn’t pay any federal taxes or don’t have jobs.
Obviously, some people don’t have jobs or don’t make enough to owe income taxes. Those are the people who Romney was presumably referencing when he talked about people “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that 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.”
Whether you agree that all poor or unemployed people feel the government owes them food and housing depends on your political leanings and personal experiences. What’s not up for debate is that the amount of American households that fall into that category. Earning under $20,000 in annual income, these people accounts for less than seven percent of the population.
Another 10 percent of those who don’t pay income taxes are the elderly, people who likely had jobs and paid taxes for decades.
So, what about the other 30-ish percent? Almost all of them do actually pay federal payroll taxes. That means they have jobs, but they either don’t make enough to pay taxes on their income or they qualify for exemptions for things like childcare, home ownership, or donations to charity (sadly, no exemptions for successfully rocking vertical stripes or Munster shoes).
Either way, they still have money taken out of their paychecks and sent to the federal government to help pay for Social Security and Medicare, not to mention state, local, gas, sales and property taxes.
To recap: More than 53 percent of American households pay income taxes. Another 28.3 percent pay payroll taxes. Of the remaining 18 percent who don’t pay income or payroll taxes, less than one percent have incomes above $20,000 and aren’t elderly.
So, Romney wasn’t actually “completely wrong,” after all. At least not in the factual sense.
*Why count households and not individuals? Because, while everyone’s family situation is different, toddlers aren’t expected to have jobs. Same goes for other kids, as well as stay-at-home parents and other non-breadwinners.