So everyone’s feathers are getting ruffled over a recording of presidential candidate Mitt Romney stating that 47% of Americans (who don’t pay taxes) have an entitlement mentality and that he can’t change that. The spin from the Obama campaign is along the lines of, “See, we told you he doesn’t care about you!” Then the counter-spin from the Romney camp is, “Listen to the whole thing and it will be more clear.”

Well, well, well. Campaign moments. They happen in every high-profile campaign, when one of the candidates says something they later wish they had not said. But what exactly did  Mitt Romney say? Is he really writing off close to half of the nation with no hopes to change their minds? Does he hate poor people and want to exploit them? Here’s what he said:

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.

For the record, I don’t agree with all of those statements, but I do agree with part of them. Specifically, although it is statistically true that a percentage of Americans effectively pay no income tax, but they do pay other forms of taxes like sales or in some cases property taxes. Not all of the “47%” believe they are victims, not all of them believe they are entitled to an endless list of benefits paid for by Uncle Sam (read: you). However, the number of Americans who DO feel that way is on the increase, and sadly, some of those will automatically vote for the candidate or party that promises the most “help.”

Entitlements

When it comes to help, I’m of the “teach a man to fish” mentality, rather than the “give a man a fish” school of thought. A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had given up a pretty good job with AT&T to become an assistant pastor. He is pursuing what he believes is his calling and willing to give up the pay he and his family were used to in order to do that. I find this highly respectable, and as long as he is able to provide for his family it is worth it in my opinion.

Our conversation was about taxes and entitlements. I commented that one example of an entitlement program was the Earned Income Tax Credit many claim on their taxes each year. For those who do not know, the EITC is a program to supplement (often single-parent) families to help defray the costs of childcare and other related expenses. Your income has to be below $50,000 at the most, for a married family with 3 children, and the maximum benefit caps at around $5,700 per year in that scenario. For most, this can amount to a tax return greater than the amount of taxes paid, if they receive their full benefit. I have had friends, single mothers, who claim this credit, and I totally understand what they’re going through.

In our talk, I was trying to explain how that is an example of a socialist program where someone else is paying for his needs. This made him upset, and we had to end the conversation because of it, but my point was simply that someone like me (single, no children, virtually no tax credits… Caucasian) pays into the system, and a portion of that money would fund his credit, and so effectively other people were paying part of what it costs to raise his child. His defense was that he only made a small hourly wage so he needed the help, but my argument was that he chose to take that wage. Even though I consider his choice respectable, I didn’t agree with him using it as a crutch to say that he “needed” extra help, or rather that he was entitled to it. If he had no choice in occupation, he might have a point with me, but in this case he was fully capable of jumping ship, even to go back to his old job with a union, good wages, 401(k), and the rest.

Even in cases of hardship, the principle still applies that someone else is effectively funding the tax credit. But let’s examine the whole welfare system. Do people who pay zero or negative net taxes want to remain dependent on the government? I would think the vast majority do not want that. My friend the assistant pastor would much rather make the kind of money he was used to before. In his case, it isn’t due to job loss or cutbacks, but rather his own choice. In many other cases, however, people would rather work full time or for higher salaries. In fact, even with all the social programs our country has, you have the potential to make far more money when not on the government dole.

Analysis and Conclusion

Although the 47% figure may not be accurate, there certainly is a percentage of our voting population that will vote for President Obama no matter what Mitt Romney says, or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson for that matter. I don’t think it’s near as high as Romney indicated in that private meeting, but I don’t think he thinks that either. If I thought 47% of the voters were against me from the get-go, I don’t think I’d be running a campaign – it would be a waste of efforts and resources to try to win all 53% of the remaining voters over.

The backlash, or attempt at such, on the other hand, I feel is not only unwarranted, but also misdirected. I have heard on talk radio shows for the last three years about how many people pay no federal income tax. It’s not like Romney just made this up. The fact is, somewhere around 47% of families do not pay any net income tax. What the backlash ought to be, instead, is, “Mr. Romney, what will you do to help increase the income levels of these 47% so that they are better off, and as a by-product tax revenue also increases?”

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