Sep. 18, 2012 -- A recently released video in which Mitt Romney says that nearly half of all households in the United States pay no income tax has put the Republican presidential candidate into the center of a political frenzy.
Here's what Romney told donors earlier this year, remarks which were captured on video publlished by liberal Mother Jones magazine:
"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."
But that's not a fair appraisal of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax.
As The Atlantic reports, eight of the top 10 states with the highest number of non payers live in red states. So, while Romney's statements indicate he thinks the 47 percent who pay no income tax are Democratic, they actually live in states that tend to vote Republican. The states with the lowest number of nonpayers are mostly blue, Democratic states.
The Atlantic cautions against assuming that nonpayers within red states vote Republican, however. Low-income earners are more likely to vote Democratic, even in Republican states. Obama lost Georgia by 5 points in 2008, but he won 70 percent of those who earned less than $30,000.
Most non payers don't make enough income to qualify to pay income tax. However, they still pay federal payroll taxes and state and local income taxes. And as The Atlantic notes, the states with the highest poverty levels, many of them in the deep-red south, have the most non payers. Many non payers are also seniors (senior-heavy Florida is one of the top 10 nonpaying states), a voting bloc that could go either way.
The magazine notes points out that it's also difficult to determine how the 47 percent vote because seniors vote at a higher rate than the working poor. And it's difficult to determine the racial makeup of the 47 percent. It is unclear what percentage of Latinos pay no income tax.
Romney also says in the video, "My job is not to worry about those people," a remark that some argue is simply evidence of political strategizing. But others argue that it stands as evidence that Romney thinks Democrats encourage people to rely on the government for free handouts, and that those voters will support that party as long as it supports them.
However, many of the seniors who do not pay income tax worked for years and then retired, while others fall under the "working poor" category. According to the Tax Policy Center, four of five households that do not owe federal income tax earn less than $30,000 a year.
The Obama campaign jumped on that notion with a statement criticizing the Republican presidential candidate.
"It's shocking that a candidate for President of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as 'victims,' entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take 'personal responsibility' for their lives," campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement. "It's hard to serve as president for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation."
And as the conservative site The Daily Caller notes, Republican president Ronald Reagan eliminated income taxes on the very poor when he signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986. In the 1990s, the Republican-controlled Congress also passed a child tax credit that did away with income-tax liability for many low-income families.
The statement raised questions for the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy organization.
"It's disturbing," said Eric Rodriguez, vice president of public policy for the organization. "For a presidential candidate to express,and to some degree potentially think they're true, these views is cleary cause for concern, and not in a partisan way."
Ultimately, most of the 47 percent are not people trying to game the system. They are seniors and working poor.
Romney also commented in the video that it would be easier in the world of politics to be Latino.
"My dad, as you probably know, was the governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company. But he was born in Mexico ... and had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot at winning this. But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico. He lived there for a number of years. I mean, I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino," he said.
Rodriguez thinks there are several ways to look at this comment.
"There are lots of ways to look at that statement, one is disparaging," he said. "We haven't really seen Romney mention his heritage."
While Romney does often include a brief remark about his father's birthplace in his standard stump speech, he has not really delved into the topic publicly.
And Rodriguez says it's not too late. Latinos want to hear substantive arguments from Romne, he said. The candidates are set to debate in early October, and many Latinos are hoping Romney will offer some specifics, such as what he plans to do with the recently enacted deferred action program.
"There's still plenty of time," he said.