The Myth of the Welfare State(s)


Andrew Schriver, Apply Liberally

As you probably have heard by now, Mitt Romney got into a bit of trouble over the weekend when video emerged of him disparaging 47 percent of the country at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. Mr. Romney castigated these people for not paying federal income tax and for being dependent on government services. “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he said. At first glance, this doesn’t seem too unusual – it’s the same “welfare queen” line that Republicans have taken for decades now, though perhaps a bit more strongly worded than usual. However, it’s worth taking a look at the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, and what that breakdown says about the GOP agenda.

First, let’s take a moment to look at that figure – 47 percent. This is the number of American households that Mitt Romney believes do not pay federal taxes. In order to avoid paying taxes, you have to make less than (approximately) $20,000 per year. It seems like Mr. Romney is missing a huge point here – if almost half of the country doesn’t pay federal taxes, then almost half of the country is shockingly poor. Almost half the country is scraping by, according to Mr. Romney’s figures, and would be going hungry if not for the state and federal aid programs that Mr. Romney would love dearly to slash. To begrudge these people for not paying any federal tax seems insensitive to say the least – being an American who does not pay any income tax myself; I would trade my fiscal situation for Mr. Romney’s in less than half a heartbeat. And that’s the problem. It’s much easier to dismiss people like me – and you, dear reader – as lazy and dependent than it is to offer an actual solution to what is apparently a rising tide of poverty.

But are things truly that dire? If, after all, 47 percent of the country made less than $20,000 per year, that at least fits into the Romney narrative about how desperately bad the Obama economy is. However, that 47 percent is one of those lovely “technically kind of true, but…” kinds of statements that permeate political discourse. According to the Tax Policy Center, while 46.4 percent of Americans did not pay federal income tax, just over half of that number did pay federal payroll taxes (not to mention property taxes, state taxes, etc.). Only 18.1 percent of American households paid zero or negative taxes in 2011. Of this number, over half were seniors whose only income was Social Security benefits. The other portion – approximately 8 percent of households – were people who actually do make less than $20,000 a year, who are in fact struggling to put food on the table and pay their mortgage. There is also a small but non-zero slice of the “no income tax” pie comprised of people who made several million dollars in 2011 but didn’t pay income or payroll taxes because of various loopholes.

The most shocking thing about Mr. Romney’s statements, however, is that most of the people who don’t pay income taxes are people on whom he is depending to vote for him! Eight of the ten states with the largest number of filers with no tax liability are southern states that traditionally vote Republican. In the same vein, seven of the ten states with the smallest number of no-liability filers voted for Obama in 2008. This is without mentioning, as before, the senior citizens and deployed military personnel who paid no taxes – two core Republican constituencies. Mr. Romney’s comments are the worst of “we don’t care” conservatism, and they embellish the difference between the often-poor voters who comprise the core of the Southern GOP, and the $500-a-plate plutocrats who actually run the show. Mr. Romney may have been attempting to take a stab at Democratic voters, but what he truly revealed was how little his party cares about the poor – even those he is expecting vote for him in November.