“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 is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” – Mitt Romney
Unfortunately, the numbers are not on Romney’s side. According to 2011 numbers from the Tax Policy Center, 53.6% of Americans pay a positive amount of income tax, while 28.3% of Americans pay only payroll tax. Of the rest, 7.9% earn too little to be eligible for federal income taxes or are unemployed, and 10.3% are elderly and thus no longer in the job market. For a little perspective: this means that 83% of the country ARE paying income tax or payroll tax. This means that a great majority of the country is financing their country through a tax of some sort, and thus deserving of a government that promises them services in return for their votes and taxes.
Just saying “income tax” and “payroll tax” can be deceiving, though. A lot of people paying payroll tax are paying their full tax bracket but according to the calculations necessary for calculating their federal tax liability, they owe nothing on their federal income tax returns. A lot of people claim home mortgage interest deductions and child tax credits – which help lower tax liability, sometimes to zero or to negative numbers – both of which are popular with Romney’s Republican base and are one of the mainstays of the “typical” middle class lifestyle the US, through the IRS, has attempted to promote over the last few decades. If you’re middle class, you should have a home and you should have a few kids; invest in your communities and we’re telling you that government will be there for you and your family.
There are other factors too. Rich Americans are more likely to be subject to the capital gains tax, which means that a large portion of their income is taxed at a lower rate than many low wage-earning workers. For example, Romney’s income was taxed at 13.9% (at least, that’s what he tells us) whereas many low-income people in the United States are taxed at their full bracket of 15% through their payroll tax and show no liability at all on their federal income tax bill. The poorest Americans are still likely to be paying taxes in some other form, as there are sales taxes and use taxes and licenses and fees that it is hard to live without encountering at some point.
Additionally, tax liabilities decreased across the board for all Americans, rich and poor, due to tax reform and tax cuts engineered by Reagan and Bush Jr. Though Romney may lament their contribution, many of the non-income-tax-payers being villainized “earned” their situation back in 2002-3 due to political necessity. One senior Bush administration official posed a rhetorical question to a Washington Post correspondent: “Do you think we wanted to include a welfare payment to people who don’t pay taxes and call it a tax cut?… No. But that’s what we needed to do to get it done.” For rich people, it was a cut… for poor Americans, it was a “welfare payment.” Unfortunately, their language also utilized the wrong definitions for “people who don’t pay taxes” and generally missed that these were majority low wage-earners – who were still earning wages. If poor people don’t seem to be paying enough taxes, then that would be the fault of the system that dictated how much they should pay – and which provides loopholes that richer people can use to pay less.
What’s more astonishing about Romney’s speech is that he can so casually insult his own base. Many of the Americans on welfare and cash assistance programs tend to be from red states; furthermore, the states with the most non-payers of payroll tax are overwhelmingly Republican, including Florida. A lot of his support comes from elderly voters, who are extremely reliant on and rigid in their beliefs regarding Social Security and Medicare, both government subsidized social safety nets that should theoretically fall afoul of Romney beliefs. Many of the midwestern and Southern states who fall safely for the GOP time and time again get a lot of money for agricultural subsidies, despite being mostly unnecessary – and if that’s not a (food-related) entitlement, what should that be called?
Even without looking at any of the specific details, it’s hard not to criticize someone who says that the President’s role – his intended role -is “not to worry” about almost half of the population. The Founders stated that “government is instituted, and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” By people, the Founders implied all citizens of the United States, not just 53% of the country. Extending the thought out a little farther, it’s almost as if Romney is advocating that the President not be concerned with things like unemployment. Are jobs an entitlement? As citizens of the United States, is it our right to have a job? If the President shouldn’t worry about citizens with entitlement issues, then it’s a great reason not to have to worry about basically any issues at all.
Lest people be confused about what the role of government is, let me be clear about this – government is there to allow all people the enjoyment of life and liberty, not just a select few. We all live in this country of ours under a social contract – the Bill of Rights, the Consitution, the myriad laws and resolutions from our august judicial and legislative bodies – and by remaining here, that means we agree to a government that will help manage the implementation and safeguarding of the universal rights we promised ourselves. That means that we agreed to have the government be responsible for us. We can disagree on just how much responsibility that means – and what “enjoyment of life” means – but we must agree that the government is there for all people. Government is not allowed to abandon people because they are not working hard enough, or they don’t believe in the same things, or have too little money. That’s not in the contract.