Romney's '47 Percent' Statistic Has Been Used by Conservatives For Years

Conservatives have been harping on this for years, but no one listened.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters on Sept. 17, 2012, about the secretly taped video.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters on Sept. 17, 2012, about the secretly taped video.

One year to the day after the Occupy Wall Street protests began, Mitt Romney has found himself in the center of a debate over income inequality and taxes—a subject the Occupy movement made its focus.

On Monday, Mother Jones posted a video that showed Mitt Romney telling wealthy donors at a fundraiser in May that "47 percent" of Americans were freeloaders of the government. "These are people who pay no income tax," the GOP presidential candidate said.

While Romney's comments were inartful, the 47 percent number is not new.

For years, the number of non-tax payers in America was discussed only in conservative circles. But the number wasn't yet close to half of all Americans. Curtis Dubay, a senior tax policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says: "We talked about it a lot, these non-payers who filed tax returns but had no liability... But it didn't get a lot of attention."

In 2010, though, the Washington-based Tax Policy Center first projected the number of Americans who wouldn't pay federal income taxes for 2009 at 47 percent. The Associated Press reported on their projections around tax day, and it set off a firestorm of coverage in the Atlantic, New York Times and Fox News.

In October 2011, the number got another boost after it became the basis of a blog "We are the 53 percent," started by conservative bloggers Erik Erickson of RedState.org and Josh Trevino from the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The blog was in response to an Occupy Wall Street blog "We are the 99 percent."

At the time, Erickson argued that people like himself who pay federal income taxes subsidize the 47 percent of Americans who don't. On the blog, Erickson held up a handwritten sign that read:

"I work 3 jobs. I have a house I can't sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But 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."

After years of the non-tax payer number being bandied about in conservative circles, it had finally entered the popular debate. Google Insights for Search shows a spike in the number of people nationally searching for "47 percent" in the weeks after the blog came out.

"It's one of these things where easy numbers are easy to grab," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "But I hope this leads to a discussion ... because we are at what the president calls a teachable moment."

Romney's "47 percent" comment has already led to some debate, with some conservatives backing the candidate's argument that too few Americans pay federal income taxes, and that too many Americans rely on the government.

Liberal bloggers and some media reports, however, have argued that some of the credits and deductions the poor receive are part of the Bush tax cuts Romney says he wants to extend, and that even Americans who don't pay federal taxes likely still pay some state and local taxes.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at eflock@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.