Why the Poor Pay No Federal Income Tax: A Wee Tutorial

| Mon Sep. 17, 2012 5:45 PM EDT

Is it true, as Mitt Romney says, that 47% of Americans don't pay federal income tax? Yes! That's mostly because they're either poor, elderly, or take advantage of tax credits for low-income workers. Details here. But why do these people pay no income tax? Ezra Klein breaks it down into Twitter-sized chunks:

  • Rs have spent years cutting income taxes and increasing things like the Child Tax Credit. This means fewer people pay income taxes.
  • So whenever you hear a stat like "47% don't pay income taxes," remember: Reagan and Bush helped build that.
  • These tax cuts for the poor were partly in order to make further tax cuts for the rich political palatable.
  • But now that fewer people pay income taxes as a result of GOP policies, they’re being called lazy and dependent.
  • And thus the GOP's tax cuts are being used to make a case that the rich are overtaxed and that the less-rich are becoming dependent.
  • Which thus leads to a policy agenda of tax cuts for the rich and cuts to social services for the non-rich.

Yep, that's about it. Also worth noting: the poor often pay higher state tax rates than the rich. Add in payroll taxes and excise taxes, instead of cherry picking only a single tax, and it turns out that the poor and the working class end up paying a fair chunk of their income in taxes. Not as big a chunk as the rich, it's true, but then, it strikes most of us as perfectly fair that the poor should pay lower tax rates than the rich. I wonder if this strikes Romney as fair too?