Does Romney Believe Laziness Causing High Unemployment?

Remarks that Mitt Romney made to wealthy donors back in May 2012, have put Romney in an awkward position. Romney denigrated nearly half of the population of the U.S. and erroneously claimed that Obama supporters were all dependent on government assistance. After receiving a question about how Romney would be able to win the election, Romney remarked:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the 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. That's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax… My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

The assertion that most or all Obama supporters are doles is false. To the contrary, the data show that the states with the greatest dependency on government assistance are overwhelmingly conservative. Sixteen of the twenty states most dependent on federal aid are Republican-leaning. All of these states received more in federal aid than they paid out to the federal government in federal taxes. The liberal bastions of California, New York, and Massachusetts were at the bottom of the list and all received far less in federal aid than they contributed in taxes to the federal budget. Likewise, the states with the greatest proportions of voters who pay no federal income tax are mostly conservative.

A singular focus on the segment of the population that does not pay federal income tax is really a distortion of the broader tax situation. While some may pay little or no federal income tax, they most likely still pay payroll tax, state and local income tax, sales tax, and property tax. If we're going to have a grown-up discussion on taxes and tax rates, we need to look at a person’s overall tax burden. The lower and middle classes pay a much larger portion of their income to payroll taxes than the rich since the maximum taxable earnings for Social Security is $110,100. It is also worth noting that many of those who pay no federal income tax are either retirees or students (as shown below), who typically are not expected to pay much in federal taxes.

Taxpayer Age Distribution

After these remarks came to light last week, Mr. Romney tried to walk them back by claiming his statement had been “inelegant,” but he stood by the substance of what he said. Despite lacking factual accuracy, the biggest problem I have with Romney’s remarks is the implicit belief that unemployment remains high because many of the jobless are lazy and would rather sit at home on the dole than go out to find a job. Romney said he would never be able to convince the 47 percent "that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Most ironically, Mitt Romney’s own father, a former Michigan governor and president of American Motors Corporation, was a welfare recipient in the earliest years of his life. Many conservatives I know have also suggested that America's unemployment is caused by indolence, but like Romney, they fail to recognize that the unemployed cannot start working if there are no jobs available. These conservatives always cite job vacancies they see at places like McDonald's or WalMart, but there are not even enough of those jobs available to hire most of the unemployed. And even if there were, our economic problems would continue unabated because these minimum-wage jobs do not pay enough to support a family. A breadwinner employed at WalMart or McDonald's would still rely heavily on government assistance to make ends meet. Economists closely track employment and are able to see how quickly job vacancies are filled at a macro level. If there were millions of jobs available and people were simply refusing to take them, economists would know about this phenomenon quite easily. But that simply is not the case. The real problem is that there are not enough jobs that pay living wages; roughly 14 million people are currently unemployed.

The current high unemployment rate has nothing to do with laziness or Romney’s myth about a “culture of dependency.” Those assertions are pure delusion. Laziness did not cause the recession and resulting layoffs. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, succinctly summarized the cause of the recession: “In most of the world, we have been experiencing an extended and devastating economic recession. It was brought on by multiple causes, but one of the major causes was widespread dishonest and unethical conduct, particularly in the U.S. housing and financial markets.” The current unemployment situation has everything to do with a historically massive recession that caused millions of people to be laid off due to circumstances beyond their control. There are not enough jobs for the unemployed. That's partly what makes Mitt Romney's derogatory remarks at the $50,000-a-plate fundraiser so ridiculous. Dependency on government assistance has assuredly increased since 2008 because unemployment skyrocketed, not the reverse.

Much has been written about our economic situation and unemployment; one of my fellow writers on wrote this excellent post about unemployment. My point right now is not to diagnose the situation or identify a solution, but to debunk the widely held conservative suspicion that our high unemployment rate is due in large part to personal failings of the unemployed. I would like to see Mr. Romney and his fellow conservatives stop picking on the people who have been the most devastated by the crisis and share detailed, viable solutions that would encourage more hiring.

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