Ronald Reagan Didn't Share the GOP's '47 Percent' Problem

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Last week, Rick Santorum become the latest prominent Republican to complain that poor people weren't paying enough taxes. Following in the footsteps of Michele Bachmann, the 53 Percent movement, and Fox News, he said that the most important class distinction was between "anybody that makes money and pays taxes and everybody who doesn't. That's the 99 [percent]."

The real stat he's looking for is more like 50 percent. That's the share of U.S. households that owe no federal income tax, which accounts for less than half of total federal taxes.

Who are the 50 percent? They are the bottom 50 percent. More than half of the folks who pay no federal income tax make less than $20,000 last year. Nearly 80 percent of the group made less than $30,000.The piechart below, made with data from the Tax Policy Center, breaks down the households that don't pay federal income tax. All numbers are in thousands of dollars (i.e.: the "20-30" slice represents all households making $20,000 to $30,000).

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Half the country being spared from federal income taxes might be fair, it might be unfair, but it is certainly deliberate. Republicans and Democrats spent the last three decades cutting tax rates and adding deductions for the explicit purpose of kicking the poor off of federal income tax rolls. For leading Republicans to complain about the development today -- even as the party unites around more tax cuts for the richest -- demonstrates a selective amnesia about recent GOP tax policy.

President Ronald Reagan repeatedly praised plans for booting the poor from federal income taxes. Here are examples collected by Center for American Progress intern John Craig and forwarded to me by Seth Hanlon, the director of fiscal reform at CAP.

Reagan criticizing the tax laws he inherited for raising taxes on the poor: "The Census Bureau confirms that, because of the tax laws we inherited, the number of households at or below the poverty level paying Federal income tax more than doubled between 1980 and 1982. Well, they received some relief in 1983, when our across-the-board tax cut was fully in place. And they'll get more help when indexing goes into effect this January." Remarks Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, P. 55 Showdown at Gucci Gulch, (August 23, 1984).

Reagan praising his tax reform for freeing families in poverty from taxation: "The tax system should not be an additional burden to those who are struggling to escape from poverty; insofar as possible, those below the poverty line should be freed from taxation altogether. By raising the personal exemption, the "zero bracket amounts," and earned income tax credit, and by expanding the credit for the blind, elderly, and disabled, the President's proposals would:(1) assure that virtually all families at or below the poverty line would be free from taxation; and (2) assure that virtually all older, blind, or disabled Americans at or below the poverty line would be freed from taxation." Reagan's 1985 Tax Proposal, Summary p. 5

Reagan promising in his 1985 State of the Union address to make families "living at or near the poverty line ... totally exempt" from federal income taxes: "To encourage opportunity and jobs rather than dependency and welfare, we will propose that individuals living at or near the poverty line be totally exempt from Federal income tax. To restore fairness to families, we will propose increasing significantly the personal exemption." Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union (February 6, 1985)

Reagan characterizing his plan to make poor families tax free as "pro-family": "Under our profamily plan, a family of four won't have to pay a single cent of tax on their first $12,000 of earnings. So, really, it's more than a 3-bracket system; we've got a fourth bracket -- zero." Remarks at a White House Meeting With Reagan-Bush Campaign Leadership Groups (October 7, 1985)

And here's President George W. Bush ten years later promising to remove millions of families from income tax rolls: "A tax rate of 15 percent is too high for those who earned low wages, so we must lower the rate to 10 percent ... People with the smallest incomes will get the highest percentage of reductions, and millions of additional American families will be removed from the income tax rolls entirely"

These quotes don't prove that Presidents Reagan and Bush were right. They don't prove that today's Republicans are wrong. The proper effective tax level for income groups in an age of deficits is a separate debate. What these quotes do prove is that for the last 30 years, the GOP (with plenty of help from Democrats) has stated that families living near or under the poverty line should not have to pay federal income taxes. Today's weird GOP obsession with raising taxes on the poor while other Republicans promise $500,000 tax cuts for the rich is not only a tone-deaf display of supply-side economics ad absurdum, but also a dramatic departure from very recent history.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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