Where Are the 47% of Americans Who Pay No Income Taxes?

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Mitt Romney says citizens who don't pay income tax will never vote for him. But eight of the top 10 states with the highest number of nonpayers are red states.

Updated, September 18

The political world is in a tizzy over hidden-camera footage of Mitt Romney at a fundraising event. Here's the money quote -- literally -- from the Mother Jones scoop:

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.

The horserace implications of this statement are what the chattering class is chattering about. Unfortunately, they're also unknowable at this point. On the one hand, it's always a bad idea to disparage voters (see: Obama, Barack and clinging to guns and religion), and the soundbite helps to cement the idea that Romney is out of touch with the average American -- clearly, he's not trying to connect with nearly half of them! On the other hand, Romney is disparaging folks whose votes he's already written off.

So let's set that speculation aside and look at who the people are who actually pay no income tax. Romney's statements are a little unclear, but it appears that the 47 percent figure represents all of those who pay no income tax, rather than the Democratic base. His problem is that those people are disproportionately in red states -- that is, states that tend to vote Republican:

nonpayers.banner.taxfound.jpg

One important note about these numbers: This measures only those Americans who filed for taxes with no liability. Millions more didn't even file; it's those millions, added to the estimated 52 million here, who combine to make that 47 percent.

It's important to remember that just because people aren't paying income tax doesn't mean they're not paying taxes -- they pay federal payroll taxes and state and local sales taxes, for example. Once those taxes are factored in, the tax regime is basically flat. And the reason that most income tax nonpayers don't pay is they simply don't make enough income to qualify to pay. As one might expect, the map of states with the highest poverty levels resembles this map fairly closely. Many of them are also seniors, a highly contested voting bloc. Just more than 10 percent of households pay no income tax because they're retired. They might also be voters in places like Florida who are already jumpy about the changes to Medicare and Medicaid that the Romney-Ryan ticket has proposed -- although they would be mostly unaffected by those reforms.

So Romney appears to be wrong about these voters. But if calling for a less progressive taxation system was enough to alienate poor voters in the Deep South, the Republican Party would have already lost its stronghold there.

Update: My colleague Derek Thompson picks up the baton from me and digs deeper into the demographics of the so-called 47 percent. One important note he makes is that it's often the lowest-income people in these red states who are most likely to vote Democratic -- it's just that the rest of the population is conservative enough to carry the states into the Republican column.

In 2008, Obama lost Georgia by 5 percentage points but he won 70% of voters who earned less than $30,000 -- which is precisely the demo most likely to owe no federal income tax. Obama lost Mississippi by 14 percentage points, but picked up 66% of voters who earned less than $30,000. As a general rule, Republicans win among richer voters -- both in the red states and the blue.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Matt O'Brien

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Presented by

David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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