America’s So-Called “Freeloaders”: Beyond the Label
One of the biggest problems for Romney is that the man just can’t control his big mouth. (His running mate isn’t much better.) He speaks with a certain cluelessness that casually dehumanizes anyone who doesn’t fit his profile of a default constituent (white, male and wealthy), and then acts surprised when people react with anger and disbelief to his blooper du jour. The latest is, of course, his assertion that he does not care about –and therefore will not concern himself with, as President — the lazy, useless 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, preferring instead to suck the government’s teat. His campaign’s attempts to walk back that statement — such as this one — only added insult to the injury, since they were clearly based on the assumption that the people who took umbrage at Romney’s statement are stupid.
That statement was, of course, based on a myth, and most editorials exposing it correctly point out that the overwhelming majority of those who don’t pay federal income tax still pay other taxes. I, however, want to approach the this deconstruction from a slightly different angle. Who are these 47%?
Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit.
In preparing this entry, I wanted to verify whether the 47% includes children too young to be working, and I noticed an interesting trend: when the question is asked, defenders of the 47% myth backtrack and attempt to argue that the number refers only to adult, able-bodied members of the population. But initially, they always refer to Americans as a whole, and as the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank makes clear, this conservative complaint refers to 47% of the country’s entire population. With that in mind, the first thing to point out here is that 20% of US’ population are children under the age of 15.
True, some children pay income taxes. These would include entertainment stars, children of the super-rich who have taxable income from investments made in their name, and a few child “entrepreneurs” whose businesses are financially backed — and, upon closer examination, pretty much operated — by their well-heeled parents. Nevertheless, the number of underage taxpayers is so small that even if you subtract it from the overall group, you will still end up with something very close to 20%.
Republicans have lately intensified efforts to scale back or repeal child labor laws, and Newt Gingrich has famously proposed that school janitors be replaced with child workers paid pennies, or perhaps nothing at all (because let’s not forget, conservatives are against the minimum wage). Still, I think the majority of even conservative voters would stop short of calling ten-year-olds leeches for not working and paying taxes, or making it an expectation that small children should be gainfully employed. If I am too optimistic here, I’d like to see Republicans give us a definitive statement as to at what age they believe children should be sent to work. Three? Four? Nine? Few, I think would be truly outraged by the non-issue of children not working for pay, and that means that children take a big bite out of the 47% figure.
Next, 12% of Americans are 65 or older, and their number is rising rapidly, projected to increase to 21% by 2050. According to the same source, 10% of Americans do not pay income taxes because they are elderly or retired. I am not sure what Romney expects of seniors here (many of whom are voting for him). The majority of them spent decades paying into the system that now assists them, so how is it wrong of them to benefit from government programs? Most of them have probably sunk everything they had into a home (as they were repeatedly told to do) and their children’s educations, with nothing left over for income-producing investments. Once again, I think most people would hesitate to demand that octogenarians should stop depending on Medicare and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, instead.
So now we are down to what, about 17%? Moving on.
People with severe disabilities aged 15 to 65 account for about 7% of the population. Some severe disabilities still permit people to earn an income — provided they have access to affordable health care, therapy and training programs, and enjoy the protection of laws designed to shield them from discrimination and integrate them into mainstream society, all of which things Republicans oppose — but others are completely debilitating, and expecting people who suffer from such disabilities to earn an income to pay taxes is nothing short of absurd. I sure would love to hear Republicans elaborate on what they believe people in persistent vegetative state, or those with severe developmental illness, or those who are completely paralyzed, should do in order to achieve financial success with no government help whatsoever.
It is at this point that it is useful to point out that 28.3% of households pay no federal income tax, but do pay payroll taxes which fund Social Security and Medicare. These are people who are gainfully employed and support their families, but have not achieved enough prosperity to be liable for federal income taxes. And another 6.9% are not paying income or payroll taxes because they earn less than $20,000. I don’t know whether complaining about these people means Republicans want to increase taxes on the poor. That’s probably the case.
It’s a tricky question who the freeloaders are. People like Mitt Romney and large corporations pay obscenely low taxes, and sometimes no taxes, and still they scream about being overtaxed. (Harry Reid’s naked claim that Romney paid no taxes in the decade preceding the years for which his returns were disclosed may be conjectural and demagogic, but Romney’s adamant refusal to release his tax returns certainly lends credence to it.) And yet, when they ask the government to lend them a helping hand, they expect enough assistance not merely to keep a roof over their heads and food in their children’s mouths, but the ability to keep their multiple homes and yachts, to send their children to chichi private schools and to buy more luxuries. In such situations, these people are certainly quick to cast themselves as victims and to describe their opulent lifestyle as an entitlement — all while chastising the plebes for wanting to be safe from homelessness and starvation.
They want a government that will exist solely to serve their needs and line their pockets, and they want that government to be financed exclusively by the poor and the middle class. They want to pay their workers next to nothing, and to have the military and the law enforcement (paid for by the “little people” of course) at their disposal to force people to work, if need be. They want a world not much different from that of a medieval prison, in which inmates were required to pay for the ropes used to bind them, and the instruments used to torture them, and the wages of their tormentors. And, Romney’s true constituents want taxpayers to subsidize their luxurious lifestyles.
All that I can understand — I really can. I just wish they were honest about it. Because all that talk about independence and personal responsibility, and how the poor, the old, the young, and the disabled should just take care of themselves — it’s a little bit insulting to my intelligence. Just a little.