99 Percenters, Meet the 53 Percenters
In response to Occupy Wall Street, some conservatives are blasting the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal taxes. Do they have a point?
Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.
The slogan doesn’t exactly sing: “We are the 53 percent!” But this new campaign, a conservative answer to Occupy Wall Street, has some verve. The 53 Percenters are responding to We Are the 99 Percent, an inequality-focused online Tumblr designed to shame—or at least call out—the top 1 percent of earners who are taking bigger and bigger pieces of the pie.
The 53 percent say everyone should stop moaning, quit pointing fingers at Wall Street, and pay their damn taxes. (The name refers to the fact that only 53 percent of households pay federal income tax these days.) The brainchild of Erick Erickson of RedState.org, the 53 Tumblr features comments like: “I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners. I am the 53 percent subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain.” (That’s from Erickson’s inaugural post, by the way.)
Rhetorical fervor aside, the 53 Percent campaign does raise an interesting question: What is going on with that other 47 percent? Why are so few people paying income taxes? For the answer to that question, we turn to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which released a study on the subject this July. (The TPC also put out the initial report with the 53 percent number.)
The short answer is: deductions and poverty. About half of households within that 47 percent do not end up paying federal income tax because they qualify for enough breaks to cancel their tax obligations out. Of that group, 44 percent are claiming tax benefits for the elderly, like an exemption for Social Security payments. And 30.4 percent are claiming credits for “children and the working poor,” like the child-care tax credit. The remainder get breaks for investment income, spending on education, itemized deductions, and a mish-mash of other things. When combined, it’s all enough to cancel out their income tax requirements.
In short, it is not that they are not paying their taxes. It is that the country’s tax structure lets them off the hook. Indeed, you can draw a straight line between the Bush tax cuts and the growing number of households exempted from income tax. For instance, the 2001 cuts, extended under the Obama administration, doubled the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000 and expanded eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit among married taxpayers. Additionally, the Bush tax cuts lowered income taxes in every bracket, making it easier for a household’s liability to get fully offset by deductions and credits. And on top of all that, the stimulus bill introduced a host of further tax cuts.
That covers about half of the households that don’t pay any federal income taxes. The other half of households are just too poor to pay them. The Tax Policy Center provides a handy example: A couple with two children earning less than $26,400 per year pays no income tax if it takes standard deductions and common exemptions, for instance. “The basic structure of the income tax simply exempts subsistence levels of income from tax,” TPC’s Roberton Williams writes.
That pool of too-poor households has grown much bigger because of the recession and its aftermath: Average incomes have kept on declining even though the recession has officially ended, and millions of households have lost one or both of their wage-earners. Households are earning about 10 percent less than they did in 2007. About 12 percent of families live in poverty. That means a lot of folks simply aren’t eligible for income tax.
So what of the claim that the 53 percent are subsidizing the 99 percent? Well, just because 47 percent of households do not pay federal income tax does not mean that they do not pay any federal taxes. Indeed, almost everyone pays some: There are federal taxes for Social Security and Medicare, on gas, alcohol, and cigarettes. Plus, there are also state and local taxes, and property taxes. You’d have to be freegan to escape paying any tax at all.
Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.