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The 47 percent: a case study

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Seth Perlman/AP/File

(Read caption) Tax payers search through tax forms at the Illinois Department of Revenue in Springfield, Ill., in this April 2010 file photo. Low-income workers benefit far less from tax subsidies than middle-income households, and vastly less than high-income households, Gleckman writes.

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About that 47 percent: Let me introduce you to Andrea. When I met her a couple of years ago, she was a home health aide who typically worked six days-a-week and often put in 50 hours.

She loved her work, but it is not something most of us would want to do. According to the Labor Dept., aides are more likely to be hurt on the job than coal miners.  Her pay: $8.40-an-hour.

Andrea was 22 and a single mom. Her daughter, Trinity, was 3. Andrea got up before 7 each morning, rode the city bus with Trinity to day care, then took another bus to her job—caring for a patient in his home.  After  a grueling seven-hour day, she’d take a bus to pick up Trinity, then another bus home, where she’d make dinner, help Trinity learn her letters, and work on her own GED.

At $8.40-an-hour, Andrea could earn $420 for a 50-hour week. And if she worked 50 hours, 52 weeks a year, that’s $21,840—well below the income tax threshold for a single mother with one dependent child.

For someone in Andrea’s situation, that’s no accident. I don’t know about her personal tax situation, but a typical head of household like her would owe no income tax thanks largely to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, both subsidies passed by large majorities in Congress and intended to encourage people to work.

Without them, she’d face stiff marginal tax rates for taking a job—a penalty that would punish both her and society at large. In fact, as my former Tax Policy Center colleague Len Burman noted in a TaxVox  post last year, the EITC is the single most effective government program aimed at getting people out of poverty.

Of course, people like Andrea still pay taxes. For 2012, someone making $21,840 would pay about $2,900 in Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes (including her employer’s share). Next year, if the payroll tax holiday expires as scheduled, her payroll tax would rise to roughly $3,300. She’d also likely pay other levies, including state and local taxes.

On net, someone in her situation would indeed be a federal taxpayer, though barely. In 2012, she’d receive a $2,856 income tax payment, not quite enough to offset $2,900 in payroll taxes. If the temporary payroll tax cut expires, she’d owe about $450 in net federal taxes.

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Keep in mind that 60 percent of recipients claim the EITC for only a year or two, and only about 20 percent take it for five years or more. With better skills and more experience, many eventually earn enough that they no longer qualify. And, that it seems, is the point.

After spending a few days with Andrea, I’m pretty sure Mitt Romney got it wrong in his videotaped talk to a group of contributors. To Romney, people like Andrea “believe that they are victims, …believe the government has a responsibility to care for them….” He added, “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” But Andrea in no way thinks she is a victim and is already taking responsibility for her life.  She does not need a politician to encourage her.  She has Trinity.

Romney went off the tracks by confusing the EITC and CTC with a sense of victimization and entitlement. People who benefit from these subsidies are exactly the opposite of that stereotype. Many want desperately to work, and struggle more than many of us can imagine to achieve the American Dream. For people like Andrea, those subsidies are the difference between keeping their heads above water and drowning.

Romney, like many who focus on the 47 percent, is also blinded by the deceptively simple binary status of taxpayer/no taxpayer. In truth, low-income workers benefit far less from tax subsidies than middle-income households, and vastly less than high-income households.

Let’s just take two examples: According to TPC, a household making between $20,000 and $30,000-a-year got an average EITC benefit of $866 in 2011. By contrast, those making more than $1 million got an average tax cut of $7,000+ thanks to the deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes alone.  The EITC may have moved a household from federal income taxpayer to non-taxpayer. But who was really better off?

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