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Camille Rivera Headshot

Who Are the 47 Percent?

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As the presidential debates draw closer, the striking differences between the economic policies of President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney become even clearer.

Perhaps nothing brought that into the public consciousness more than Romney's crack about the 47 percent of the Americans who will vote for Obama because they feel entitled to get government aid or don't pay federal taxes.

By pandering to his wealthy supporters, he slandered tens of millions of Americans who are desperately seeking jobs, or who work hard but need government help like Social Security or Medicaid or Medicare or food stamps to make ends meet.

He tried to paint them as moochers and freeloaders, but the truth is much different. The Associated Press reports that about half of the people who don't pay taxes don't earn enough for a family of their size. For example, a family of four earning less than $26,400 would owe no federal tax after exemptions and deductions. That same AP report noted that 22 percent of those people Romney talked about are seniors who get tax breaks, another 15 percent get tax breaks because they are poor or are low-wage earners, and three percent get tax breaks for college tuition.

Incredibly, the poor are not the only ones who paid no federal income taxes. The Tax Policy Center says that in 2011, 78,000 tax filers with incomes between $211,000 and $533,000 paid no taxes; 24,000 households with income ranging from $553,000 to $2.2 million didn't pay taxes and 3,000 filers making more than $2.2 million paid no federal income tax.

Over the course of my life I have been one of Mitt Romney's 47 percent -- someone who received government help for child care and student loans so I could attend high school and college while raising a child when I was in my teens.

I am proud to have been one of the 47 percent, because that aid allowed me to pursue my dreams and overcome the barriers of growing up in a poor neighborhood to get a good education and a good job. I pay taxes -- at a far higher rate than Romney -- and my work fighting for the poor, for low-wage workers and for a truly fair economy allows me to give back to my community and to society as a whole.

Of course, I am not alone. There are many others who struggle valiantly to make ends meet, but who Romney would label "moochers."

There is Evangeline Byars of Brooklyn, a 32-year-old mother who returned to school to make a better life for her and her three-year-old daughter. She is a junior at Medgar Evers College, where she is studying Childhood Special Education. She is paying for school with grants and government loans, and she sees this as a stepping stone to a better life and a way for her daughter to become self-sufficient.

Carmen Perez is a cancer survivor from The Bronx. She worked as a home health care aid for 16 years before becoming ill. She is unable to work and subsists on disability.

And Maria Maisonet is an unemployed 51-year-old Brooklyn woman who used to work in maintenance and cleaning jobs. She was laid off last year and has been unable to find work in the past year. She is active in her community and, three years ago, helped lead the fight to create more affordable units in her Spring Creek Towers public housing complex.

They are real people who fight for survival every day.

They are the people who need a president who cares about them more than big banks and corporations -- many of which also get government help in the form of taxpayer-funded bank bailouts or tax loopholes that allow them to pay little or no federal income, like Verizon and General Electric.

They are the people who need help to make ends meet or go to school to better themselves.

They are the people who live and work in the shadows, but who are law-abiding and productive and who only want a chance to get a piece of the American Dream.

And they are the real people behind the Census numbers that show New York City's poverty rate is at a 10-year-high and that the income gap between the rich and poor in Manhattan "rival[ed] disparities in sub-Saharan Africa."

Those people -- those 47 percenters -- would like nothing more than to have decent jobs that would allow them to fend for themselves. To that end, we need a comprehensive jobs program like the one proposed by President Obama, but blocked by Republicans.

That program includes tax cuts to help small businesses hire and grow; would put workers back on the job; create pathways for Americans looking for jobs and put more money into the pockets of every worker without raising the deficit.

The White House says the president's jobs program would create 482,600 jobs in New York alone. That program, or one like it, is the only way to bring back the economy, create jobs for middle- and low-income workers and narrow that totally unacceptable gap between the have and have-nots.

President Obama's economic plan would help do that -- not just for the 47 percent who get government assistance, but for the one percent, the ultra-rich, the big banks and the large corporations who fit into Mitt Romney's vision of America.

So as the presidential debates draw nearer, we need to have a national conversation about the economy and the needs of everyday Americans who make this country great -- not just the billionaires who profit from them.