Just who is part of the infamous 47 percenters?
The response to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who "don’t pay taxes" continued to reverberate around the nation this week.
Actually, he was really only talking about not paying federal income taxes. The are plenty of other taxes and fees, including federal ones like gasoline taxes, that everyone pays, even if they are poor. In fact, sales taxes and other fees actually impact the poor as a percentage of their income more than others.
Be that as it may, the fact that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes it’s bound to get some attention and probably some resentment. I think most of us want people to pay their fair share to support the nation and carry the "burden." It is a shared responsibility, after all.
But it isn’t quite as clear cut as you might think.
I was curious about just who is in this 47 percent. They must be a bunch of freeloaders and government mooches, right?
Well, actually the answer is no.
A recognized and frequently used source on the infamous 47 percent is the national Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. In a July 2011 report, it broke the tax "freeloaders" down.
I must admit going through the statistics was a little dehumanizing since the center likes to refer to taxpayers and potential taxpayers as "tax units," but nevertheless the information is enlightening.
First, the sometimes implied idea that the 47 percent are sitting in their living rooms watching reality shows and collecting welfare is not accurate. Second, they are not "cheating" anyone. They are simply following the tax provisions provided by our lawmakers in Congress, just as Mitt Romney does when reduces his tax "obligation." Third, they are from all political persuasions, not just Democrats, as was implied.
Many are working, although in some cases they have low incomes and aren’t taxed for that reason. For example, our lawmakers have decided that there should be no income taxes for families making less than $20,000 a year.
Another significant portion of the group earns enough to have payroll taxes taken out of their checks, but when they file their income taxes they end up getting that money back. In addition to lower income people, these can be middle class working families or even rich investors who take advantage of tax breaks provided to them in the form of various deductions and credits (including the standard deductions offered to all taxpayers).
A big segment of the group is the elderly living on limited retirement income after working most of their lives and paying income taxes during that time. We as a nation have decided they deserve a tax break in the latter part of the lives. I guess that is pretty awful, huh?
I doubt most Americans would think many of the 47 percent - once they know who they are - are "leeching" off the government.
It is true, however, that the number of those not paying federal income taxes has grown over the years. It was about 20 percent in the 1960’s. And some do think it is important that just about everyone pay a little income tax to support the federal government - even if it is just a very small symbolic amount each year - to maintain an awareness of civic responsibility.
There is nothing wrong with debating that point, perhaps as part of the growing effort to reform our U.S. tax code.
But we need to look at it from a bipartisan standpoint. Trying to stigmatize those in the "47 percent" isn’t the solution. Probably all Americans - whether liberal, conservative or in between - want to minimize their taxation and take advantage of opportunities to reduce their taxes, even if they are just using the standard deductions provided for everyone.
These tax breaks didn’t come just from "liberals." Some of them were also created and supported by conservatives. For example the Earned Income Tax Credit - an often criticized program - was actually a conservative proposal designed to encourage people to move off the welfare rolls and work, even if it was for low pay. In return, they were given a tax break as an encouragement. I would think many people would think that is good exchange since it reduces government welfare costs and supports the work ethic.
Tax policies can be changed if we want. Our representatives in Washington made them - with our support as voters, by the way - and can also unmake them or redefine them. But it isn’t going to happen without bipartisan effort and support, including from the 47 percent.
Terry Ross is director of the Yuma Sun’s News and Information Center. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Telephone: 539-6870.