How The 0.1% Sees The 47%
Many people will be familiar with the sense that an acquaintance who is nice to them in person may be less than complimentary as soon as their back is turned. Perhaps a mutual friend tips them off, perhaps they walk into a room and feel the atmosphere change, or perhaps that acquaintance is secretly filmed addressing a room of wealthy donors and the video is posted online.
Almost half of America had this experience last night when a video emerged of Mitt Romney speaking at a private fundraiser earlier this year. Clips from the video posted by Mother Jones show Romney dismissing 47% of the country as freeloaders dependent on the government and unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their lives. Romney said:
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… My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Mitt Romney is currently running for president of the United States. While he is publicly asking the nation as a whole to elect him their leader and representative on the world stage, he is at the same time discarding almost half of them in private, and characterising them as lazy parasites. In a half-hearted apology last night, he has insisted that the only thing wrong with his argument was that it was not ‘elegantly stated‘, and that he stood by the principle behind it. That principle being that almost half of the US population are dependent on a government that they expect to take care of them.
The fact is, from saying he is ‘not concerned about the very poor’, to defining $200,000 to $250,000 as ‘middle income’, to the video that emerged last night, Mitt Romney has shown repeatedly that he fundamentally does not understand the country that he wants to lead. His characterisation of the 46.4% of Americans who did not pay income tax in 2011 demonstrates this perfectly.
The first thing Romney should understand is that just because they do not pay income tax, this does not meant they pay no taxes. More than 60% of the group paid payroll taxes, which at 15.3% actually constitutes a higher rate of tax than Romney was paying in his two declared years. Of the 18.1% remaining who paid neither income nor payroll tax, more than half were elderly or retired. Social Security is considered nontaxable income, so there is nothing to pay if that constitutes your entire income. Another third were nonelderly people making under $20,000 a year, as the diagram from the Tax Policy Centre shows.
If we accept that when Romney speaks of the 47%, he does not mean the majority of them who actually are taxpayers, or the majority of the remainder who are elderly, and presumably have previously paid taxes, we are left with eight percent. It appears that these 8% were the people that Romney had in mind when he was talking about the 47% who ‘are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them’.
But who are these eight percent? Many are young; the Hamilton Project points out that incorrectly included in the statistics are young people in education, in other words ‘students who subsequently will pay taxes’, rather than people happy to live off the state. A small but significant number are rich, as Bruce Bartlett points out:
There are 78,000 tax filers with incomes of $211,000 to $533,000 who will pay no federal income taxes this year. Even more amazingly, there are 24,000 households with incomes of $533,000 to $2.2 million with zero income tax liability, and 3,000 tax filers with incomes above $2.2 million with the same federal income tax liability as most of those with incomes barely above the poverty level.
Clearly these are not the people Romney means.
He would say he is talking about the people who feel ‘entitled’, who take no ‘personal responsibility’ and are content to sit and live off spending programmes such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) indefinitely. The problem with this, of course, is the majority of those receiving EITC are on it for less than two years, and in fact ‘EITC users pay much more in federal income taxes over time than they receive in EITC benefits‘. Paul Ryan is fond of talking about the welfare safety net becoming a ‘hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency‘. With the above in mind, it seems a more apt metaphor would be a springboard, to help people back into work.
Though Romney’s remarks misrepresent, insult and dismiss almost half of the nation, it is possible that certain Romney supporters did not worry too much when the speech surfaced. After all these are certain Democrat voters – as Romney says in the video, these 47% will vote for Barack Obama ‘no matter what’ – so really he will not lose votes.
Of course, this is not true. As David Graham shows in the Atlantic, nine of the ten states with the highest percentage of people who do not pay income tax are Republican-leaning. In the 2010 Congressional elections, elderly voters went Republican by a 21-point margin. Perhaps most important are the ‘white working poor‘, who vote against their financial interests for the Republican ideology, and have just been told that their candidate believes it’s ‘not his job’ to worry about them, and that they need convincing to ‘take personal responsibility and care for their lives’.
These are the people who have just found out how Romney talks behind their back. Having seen it, they may be less enthused about helping him take the White House.