In the leaked video that has caused serious turmoil for the Mitt Romney campaign this week, the Republican presidential nominee said 47 percent of people pay no income tax and therefore will vote for President Barack Obama because they are "dependent on government" and view themselves as "victims."
"And so my job is not to worry about those people -- I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," Romney said at a May fundraiser.
Romney's comment about 47 percent of people not paying income taxes is nearly on the mark, but misleading -- 46 percent of Americans did not pay income taxes in 2011, according to the Tax Policy Center, but many of them paid payroll taxes, state and local taxes, property taxes or sales taxes.
What Romney -- and plenty of other Republicans including Gov. Rick Perry (R) and vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) -- neglect in their warnings about almost half of all Americans not paying income tax is that Republican presidents have championed efforts to take large numbers of people off tax rolls.
As Heritage Foundation data indicates, the number of Americans not paying income taxes rose sharply after President Ronald Reagan's 1986 tax reform and after President George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. President Bill Clinton expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit in 1993 and 1997, which also led to decreases in tax liability. The number of people not paying income taxes sharply increased again as a result of the economic recession associated income declines.
Reducing the income tax liability for poor people has been considered a bipartisan reform -- Democrats like it because it is an antipoverty program, and Republicans like the tax cuts.
But the tide shifted in the early 2000s, as The New York Times notes. A 2002 Wall Street Journal editorial called those who didn't pay income tax "lucky duckies." In 2011, conservative blogger Erick Erickson countered the Occupy Wall Street meme of "We are the 99 percent" with "we are the 53 percent." The complaints were a frequent feature of the GOP primaries, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) pleading to make people pay "two Happy Meals'" worth of income taxes.
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post quipped, "So whenever you hear that half of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes, remember: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush helped build that."
Video produced by Hunter Stuart.