About That 47 Percent.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or furiously catching up on “Boardwalk Empire,” you’ve probably heard about the bombshell video that MoJo released from a Mitt Romney fundraiser earlier in the campaign. In it, the Republican presidential hopeful tells a crowd that nearly half the nation is not pulling its fiscal weight and is unwinnable to him because they’d much rather suckle from Washington’s teat.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said. “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.”

Oof. This would be bad for Team Romney even if it didn’t come on the heels of a big Politico story detailing dissension in the campaign ranks and Romney’s universally criticized response to the attacks on two U.S. embassies in North Africa last week.

But let’s get to the meat of this: who are all these folks who are not paying federal income taxes? Last year, Ramesh Ponnuru over at the National Review did the math on that 47 percent, a figure that has become a favorite talking point of several Republican lawmakers and that he said was “now one of the most widely known statistics on the right.”

According to the Tax Policy Center, provisions of the tax code that exempt subsistence levels of income from income taxes — the standard deduction, personal exemption, and dependent exemption — are the reason for about half of the tax filers who owe no income tax. Another large group of filers pays no income tax because its members are elderly and benefit from such features of the code as the non-taxation of some Social Security benefits. The tax credit for children and the earned-income tax credit, an effort to boost the pay of low-income workers, wipe out income-tax liability for other taxpayers. Those credits are “refundable,” meaning that beneficiaries can get money on top of paying no income tax. Other provisions of the code account for the rest of the 47 percent: education credits, the non-taxation of welfare payments, itemized deductions, and so on.

Jamelle made the important point yesterday that just because folks might not have any federal income tax liability doesn’t mean they don’t pay any taxe; they’re still on the hook for state and local taxes as well as federal payroll taxes. And as Mike Konczal noted earlier this year, most folks who fall into that 47 percent will move out of that group and end up paying federal taxes within two years.

The Tax Foundation published a map yesterday afternoon detailing just where all those non-payers live. It  turns out they’re clustered in solidly red states.

It’s hard to tell how much this changes the electoral outlook: Obama wasn’t winning any of those “freeloader” states that Romney ostensibly insulted, and Romney wasn’t going to win in most of the states where most people have pay federal income taxes since most of those states are pretty solidly blue. (Our country’s politics = weird.)

Now, it might change the outlook for a key swing state, but winning struggling (white) voters is an old hurdle for the Democrats, since lots of people get help from the government — from the EITC, free school lunch, food stamps, etc. — and still manage to hold it in their heads that these are all bad things and that people who avail themselves of them are moochers.

The New York Times spoke to a bunch of folks in that situation back in February:

Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.