The Data Behind Romney’s 47% Comments

Damian Paletta and John D. McKinnon
The Wall Street Journal

In his comments to fundraisers captured on video, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said 47% of Americans would almost automatically vote for President Barack Obama because they were “dependent” on the government, in part because they received government benefits and paid no federal income taxes.

In a press conference late Monday, Mr. Romney said his comments were “not elegantly stated” while at the same time reiterating the main point. Our translation: If you don’t pay federal income taxes, you may not be swayed by a candidate that wants to cut them.

Here’s a rundown of the data behind Mr. Romney’s argument, some of which he correctly stated and other parts of which don’t hold up so well.


According to the Census Bureau, 49% of Americans in the second quarter of 2011 lived in a household where at least one member received a government benefit. (The total population at the time was 305 million).

That’s up from 30% in the 1980s and 44.4% in the third quarter of 2008, a recent growth in part attributable to the bad economy of President Obama’s first term…

…Mr. Romney correctly noted that nearly half of Americans pay no federal income tax. Who are all these people? And how did we get here?

Here’s a quick answer. Roughly half of U.S. households that pay no federal income tax are exempted because of basic provisions such as limitations on tax for low-income earners, according to a 2011 study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The other half benefit from targeted breaks (known to tax geeks as “tax expenditures”), such as assistance for the working poor and for children in moderate-income families. Seniors also benefit from some of these targeted breaks…

…So how did we get to the point where almost half of American households pay no income tax? Since the 1970s, Congress and successive presidents have begun creating more and more tax breaks to benefit broad swaths of the population (and some very narrow gauges too). Democrats generally have been more supportive of the particular breaks that push people off the income-tax rolls, but Republicans have supported a few too, and they also have pushed breaks that benefit higher-income people…

The entire article, with video, is at The Wall Street Journal.



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