Debunking Romney’s 47 Percent: The Poor Pay Their Fair Share

Mitt Romney waves to one of his sons and grandsons before addressing the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Is Mitt Romney’s 13.9 percent tax rate paid something to be proud of or embarrassed about?

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Two numbers now define our political discourse. One number, made famous by Occupy Wall Street, is 99 percent. It represents the vast majority of our society—those who do not enjoy the income distribution and tax policies, including capital gains preferences and large write-offs—that favor the elite 1 percent.

And now there’s a second number, from Mitt Romney: 47 percent, representing those who pay no federal income taxes.

I bet if you asked people which number they felt more passionate about, you could use that data point alone to predict with over 90 percent accuracy how they will vote this November in the presidential election.


The canard that people don’t carry their fair share is a trope that Republicans love to roll out, and the 47 percent figure is their favorite data point to support it.


But as I have been saying for some time now, the 47 percent figure, while technically accurate as it relates to federal income taxes, doesn’t include what people do pay through the payroll tax, sales taxes, excise taxes, and all sorts of other levies . So here is a partial breakdown of how those other burdens fall on the population, courtesy of the Tax Policy Center and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy:

28.3 percent pay payroll taxes, which cover Social Security and Medicare.

10.3 percent pay no federal income tax because they are retired or elderly, and Social Security payments are not taxed. I can’t imagine that Romney objects to this category.


It turns out that just 6.9 percent of people who are non-elderly don’t pay income tax. That is a far cry from 47 percent. We are not, in fact, a nation of moochers, as Romney seems to suggest.

And here is a more important point: How does the burden of our tax system fall? Do the less wealthy really get off easy?

It turns out that tax payments are almost directly proportional to the income we earn when everything is factored in. Look at this chart:

Shares of total taxes paid by each income group were similar to their shares of total income in 2011.
Shares of total taxes paid by each income group were similar to their shares of total income in 2011. Citizens for Tax Justice.

Those who fall in the middle 20 percent of income earned pay 10.3 percent of all taxes and earn only a touch more than 11.4 percent of the income!

Those in the bottom 20 percent pay 2.1 percent of all taxes and earn only 3.4 percent of the income! And those in the top 1 percent—Occupy Wall Street’s famous 1 percent—pay 21.6 percent of all taxes, but they earn 21 percent of all income!

The system may not be as crazy as any of the loudest voices want us to think it is. We are not a nation of panhandlers, or of cheats.

That being said, it is time for Romney to stop pointing the finger at those who get the benefits of government programs he is so quick to deride. A few of the wounded veterans who are getting health care at VA hospitals may not take so kindly to his flippant view of government  help.

And by the way, Gov. Romney, your own 13.9 percent income tax still puts you well below what your colleagues in the top 1 percent pay. So stop complaining.