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Who Are the 47 (Actually 46) Percent? Law Prof and Other Experts Weigh In

Posted Sep 19, 2012 8:04 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Mitt Romney was off by just one percentage point when he declared that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes.

The actual number is 46 percent, according to an analysis last year by the Tax Policy Center, report the Associated Press, NPR and the New York Times Economix blog. Though Romney is right that nearly half of households do not pay federal income taxes, Economix says, he “is missing some crucial context.”

“Though tens of millions of families do not pay federal income taxes,” Economix says, “there are virtually no families that do not pay any taxes—between payroll taxes, sales taxes, state and local taxes, and on and on.” University of Miami law professor Frances Hill makes a similar point in an Associated Press video. She notes that the working poor who don’t make enough money to pay federal income taxes still are assessed payroll taxes at a rate of more than 15 percent.

NPR has a chart with the percentage breakdown: Fifty-four percent do pay income taxes. Of the remainder, 23 don’t pay because of low income, 10 percent because of benefits for the elderly, 7 percent because of benefits for the working poor and their children, and 6 percent because of other benefits.

The elderly benefit from an exclusion on taxes on part of their Social Security and a higher standard deduction, according to the AP story. Most of the households paying no income or payroll tax consist of the elderly or those making less than $20,000 a year, NPR says.

TaxProf Blog lists several stories on the tax issue.

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