I really liked this piece from The Monkey Cage on the whole 47%, makers versus takers belief on the Right. I like it because the writer accepts the Right’s stated belief that there are makers and takers, and then simply asks, even if we accept the premise, who are the takers? How many of them are there? What do the 47% do all day in this country, anyway?
Before saying that 47% of Americans don’t pay income taxes in his now familiar comments, Mitt Romney said this: “. . . there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
But the discussion of dependence on government is at the heart of the Republican case against Democrats and is fully consistent with the “maker vs. taker” theme that often shows up in Republican campaign rhetoric. On this point, Romney was not off-message, likely making this part of the argument more central to the ongoing dynamics of the campaign. The Republican line is that there is a large group of takers in American society – Romney’s initial estimate was 47%. Here, I attempt to gain some empirical leverage on this question using information about work experience, receipt of government benefits, and demographics from 2011 Current Population Survey March Supplement microdata.
The bottom line here is that there aren’t that many takers in America. The most restrictive definition pegs the percentage of takers at 2.4%. If we’re willing to include people in households with at least one earner, that number increases to 5.2%. Lots of people, even quite rich people, receive government benefits in the United States, and that is a reasonable thing for true fiscal conservatives to be frustrated about. But these numbers simply don’t line up with the rhetoric of a massive class of lazy people taking advantage of the rest of us while eating solely at the trough of government.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that these are really upper-bound estimates. Being a taker involves motives as well as work and benefit status. Takers, so the argument goes, feel no responsibility for themselves and believe that they are entitled “to you name it.” The CPS data don’t allow us to examine motives, but if we could, we would likely find even fewer takers.
The writer never tells us if he buys the makers versus takers argument in a moral or ethical or ideological sense. I could make a solid guess (he doesn’t) but I don’t have to. Instead he just looks at the claim and takes it apart, and in the process he tells us something real and true about the actual country we live in, rather than the country Mitt Romney and his donors imagine when they’re up nights seething with resentment against half of their fellow citizens. He introduces us to the real 47% and tells us what they might be doing all day. They’re making. They’re not “making” in the cramped narrow sense that conservatives would have us believe is the only “making” that matters. They’re at all different points in their lives, and some of them aren’t making enough money to pay federal income taxes because they’re students, or low wage workers, or retired, or they stay at home and care for others for who can’t care for themselves, and all of these categories are fluid and most of them change. I’ve been in a few of the much-maligned “taker” subsets myself-low wage worker, student, unemployed and looking for work, and stay at home mother- at one point or another in my life. Nearly everyone has.
Just think about that when we’re told tomorrow on the morning shows that Mitt Romney is a “numbers guy” and Paul Ryan is a “wonk”. Forget about ideology or ethics or what conservatives value as “work”. Both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan accepted the factual basis of the makers versus takers argument they promote without ever looking into it at all.