Mitt Romney is in a bit of hot water for comments he made during a closed-door fundraiser about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes.
I’m generally pretty sympathetic to people saying stupid things in closed-door fundraisers, but the whole flap raises an interesting question: Is it really true that 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax? And who are these people? And do they believe that they are victims entitled to health care and housing?
How many people don’t pay federal income tax in the US?
Lots of people. The 47% stat is accurate, as long as you only count federal income taxes. (More than 85% of Americans under 65 pay either income tax, federal payroll tax, or both—and almost all Americans who own land and/or buy things pay state and local taxes.)
Who are these people?
Many elderly people who live off social security pay no income tax (social security benefits are only taxable if your total income is over $25,000 a year). Only about 25% of Americans over the age of 75 pay federal income tax, but it’s important to remember that most of them did pay federal income tax when they were working.
Also, many young adults pay no income taxes, because they are full-time students or have very low incomes. You can see a chart here that shows that about 30% of 18-year-olds pay federal income tax, while over 65% of people in their 40s do.
People living in poverty are also unlikely to pay federal income taxes. A married couple filing jointly making under $18,700 annually pays no income taxes. But it’s worth noting that in 1996, 99.5% of all nontaxable returns came from people making less than $30,000 a year. Today, that number is closer to 76%.
The fastest growing segment of Americans who pay no tax are those who earn between $75,000 and $100,000 each year. As explained here, there’s been a 12,000% increase in nontaxable returns in this income category thanks to middle income tax cuts and tax credits introduced by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Romney’s central mistake is imagining the data as static. In 2000, for instance, I paid no federal income tax. This doesn’t mean that I am a drain on the system: In fact, I have paid lots of federal income tax in other years. 2000 just happened to be a weird year, because I had a lot of health care expenses and not very much income.
This is the case for most Americans: Romney’s comments implied that the same 47% of Americans pay no federal income taxes every year. In fact, the members of that 47% are constantly changing as people age into and out of the work force.
Do these people believe that they are victims entitled to health care and housing?
The most incendiary remark Governor Romney made was, “There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care of them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
In fact, the number of Americans who feel the government should provide health care and food to those in need is much higher than 47%. 76% of Americans (including a majority of Republicans) favor medicaid, the program that offers health care to the poor. A majority of Americans also believe medicare, the program that offers health care to the elderly, is worth its cost. And more than three quarters of Americans support the federal food stamp program that provides food to low-income and elderly people.