(CNN) -- Americans are not a nation of moochers and helpless dependents. Those who are not paying federal income tax would gladly do so, because it would mean they have a decent-paying job.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is right that 47% of Americans don't pay federal income tax. But he is wrong to suggest almost half of Americans pay no tax at all and feel entitled to live off government handouts.
Romney said: "There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% 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. But 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."
It's true that some Americans don't pay federal income tax. But virtually all Americans pay some form of tax, whether it's sales, payroll, state income, or property tax.
Over 60% of those who don't pay income tax are working; they pay payroll tax, which goes to support Social Security and Medicare. Another 22% of those who don't pay income tax are the elderly; most of them don't work.
In fact, only about 8% of Americans pay neither federal income tax nor payroll tax, because they are unemployed, are students, or are disabled.
What is missing from all this talk about tax is the fact that although the rich pay higher taxes than the poor, middle-class people actually pay a higher percentage of their income in total taxes. True, federal income tax rates are progressive, with rates going to 35% for the top earners. But deductions and special treatment of capital gains reduce actual tax rates for the top earners. So what we end up with is upper-middle-class taxpayers paying the highest actual percentage of their income, over 31%, according to a 2010 study by the group Citizens for Tax Justice.
How did our tax system get so flat?
The payroll tax for Social Security is 12.4% (split between employer and employee). It's highly regressive, because only the first $110,100 of income is taxed. CEOs earning over $35 million per year have paid their entire annual Social Security tax bill before the end of their workday on January 2, while regular workers see this tax deducted from every check throughout the year.
Billionaire Warren Buffett points out that he pays a tax rate of only 17.8%, compared with his secretary's rate of 35.8%. Why? Because payroll taxes are capped and he gets a lower rate on his capital gains.
President Obama pushed to pass the "Buffett Rule" to help reduce this disparity, but Romney's vice-presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, opposed the rule, calling support for it "class warfare." As the Republicans use the term "class warfare," they also bring forth, pointedly, details on the wide gap in income and wealth distribution in our country.
Digging deeper into why 47% don't pay federal income tax, what we find are many former taxpayers: Twenty-two percent are the elderly, living mostly on Social Security, a benefit they got by working and paying payroll taxes. Others are unemployed or are paid close to the minimum wage, so they don't have enough income to file any taxes.
What about Romney's claim that these people believe they have a right to government assistance? Our research shows that over 50% of older people looking for work (but who are too young to collect Social Security) do not receive unemployment insurance or any other government assistance. They are living close to the poverty line with no help other than family.
Far fewer poor Americans get government assistance for low incomes. For the last 30 years, less than 4% of the U.S. population has received a full year's worth of payments, like food stamps, which are based on level of income.
Romney can choose whom he cares about, but he can't be allowed to choose his own facts and distort reality in service of divisive politics. Focusing exclusively on federal income taxes hides the fact that most Americans pay plenty of other taxes.
Finally, Romney says that the 47% can't be convinced to take "personal responsibility." Tell that to the single mother working the night shift to put her kids through school, or the 78-year-old widow living on Social Security, or the handicapped Iraqi war veteran who relies on government health care for his service to his country. Along with millions of working Americans, they are paragons of personal responsibility, not Romney's caricature of self-pitying victims seeking to live off government benefits.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Teresa Ghilarducci and Rick McGahey.