The Cluelessness of Romney’s 47 Percent Statement

The Cluelessness of Romney’s 47 Percent Statement September 19, 2012

The blogosphere is abuzz over the release of a secret recording of Mitt Romney speaking to wealthy donors at a private fundraising dinner at the home of a hedge fund manager in Boca Raton. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times by now, but here’s the big statement everyone is jumping on:

“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. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”

Romney went on: “[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The furor over this statement is justified, of course; it’s wrong on so many levels simultaneously that it’s astounding. Most interesting, I think, is how wrong he is in his purely political analysis. As Derek Thompson points out, a pretty sizable percentage of those who pay no federal income taxes vote Republican. First, he breaks down who comprises that 47%:

In 2011, 47% of Americans paid no federal income taxes. Within that group, two-thirds still pay payroll taxes. The rest are almost all either (a) old and retired folks collecting Social Security or (b) households earning less than $20,000. Overall, four out of five households not owing federal income tax earn less than $30,000, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Here’s another, slightly wonkier, way to think about the 47%. Divide the group into two halves. The first half is made tax-free by credits and exemptions, the vast majority of which go to senior citizens and children of the working poor. The half that you’re left with is so poor, they wouldn’t owe federal income taxes even if there were zero tax expenditures.

There are some not-so-poor outliers, like the 7,000 millionaires who paid no federal income taxes in 2011. But for the most part, when you hear “The 47%” you should think “old retired folks and poor working families.”

He also notes that eight of the ten states with the highest rates of residents who don’t pay federal income tax are all solidly Republican states (the only exceptions are Florida, with a very high number of elderly residents, and New Mexico, a swing state). But he points out that in those states, about 1/3 of the voters with incomes under $30,000 tend to vote Republican. And elderly voters skew strongly Republican. So by dismissing anyone who doesn’t pay federal income taxes, he’s dismissing a sizable chunk of his voting base.

And Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor of the National Review, argues that Romney is wrong when he says that government benefits and more people not paying federal income taxes has skewed the vote toward Democrats:

As an explanation for electoral trends, though, this theory doesn’t hold up.

One major reason for the growth of the federal government in recent years has been that entitlement spending per beneficiary has increased, and so has the number of beneficiaries as people have retired. Yet senior citizens — who benefit from federal programs, on average, far more than younger people — have become more Republican over that same period. They actually voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008 by a slightly higher margin than they did for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

In 2010, their Republican margin increased even more, to a whopping 21 points. Pollster Scott Rasmussen told me that in his latest poll, Romney still leads among seniors by 19 points.

It’s true that Americans with low incomes — more and more of whom now receive food stamps and federally subsidized health insurance — have generally voted for Democrats over Republicans. But in 2010, these voters shifted toward Republicans even as food stamps, unemployment benefits and the like continued to increase.

So his words aren’t just outrageous and revealing, they’re also just flat wrong. And even Bill Kristol is blasting him for it:

It’s worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes are Romney supporters—especially of course seniors (who might well “believe they are entitled to heath care,” a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they’re not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan. So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.

But there’s two other aspects to this that make it even more absurd. The first is that Romney has repeatedly sworn that he would not raises taxes on the elderly, which cuts out a big portion of those who pay no federal income taxes. The second is that the primary way the working poor, the rest of that group, avoid paying federal income taxes is the Earned Income Tax Credit — which is a policy put in place by both Democrats and Republicans as a means of giving people the incentive to do exactly what Romney is slamming them for, get a job and take care of themselves.

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