Mitt Romney's unguarded thoughts about the half of America that pays no income taxes -- "who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims" -- show a notable lack of empathy as well as political savvy. Maybe that's a surprise. But the big surprise is how little he seems to comprehend about the federal budget or the tax system or American politics.
His point, captured on an unauthorized video at a fundraiser, is a familiar one among conservatives: More people are riding in the wagon and fewer people are pulling the wagon, and certain politicians want to keep it that way. The belief is that the federal government is turning more and more Americans into wards of the state who will reliably vote for the party that defends their entitlements -- namely the Democrats.
But the lurid picture he draws is largely erroneous. When someone complains about those who "believe the government has a responsibility to care for them," the image that comes to mind is of lazy adults who would rather collect welfare and watch TV than take a job.
For the most part, though, that's no longer an option. Thanks to the 1996 welfare reform bill passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, federal income assistance now carries a work requirement. Since then, caseloads have shrunk drastically.
From where has the growth in "dependency" come? Mainly Social Security and Medicare. Since 1990, the number of people getting Social Security benefits has risen by more than a third. That's not because the government has suddenly enlarged the program in an effort to undermine self-reliance. It's because there are more old people.
The advantage of Social Security, for those worried about soul-sapping dependency, is that it rewards work. It's an earned benefit. The alleged moochers worked when younger so they could take it easy in old age. That's how things are supposed to work.
Republicans do not dispute the point. Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future," the basis for the budget plan passed this year by the GOP-controlled House, stipulates that it "preserves the existing Social Security program for those 55 or older," who "will receive the benefits they have been promised, and have planned for, during their working years."
What about the other supposed freeloaders? Romney may not realize that one reason many low-income Americans pay no federal income taxes is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which covers some 27 million people, up from 19 million in 2000.
The program does not subsidize sloth but labor, since it's available almost exclusively to adults who are employed, particularly those with children. It was conceived to give the able-bodied poor greater incentives to enter the labor force, and it works.
Easing the tax burden on those who have the least was not always anathema to conservatives. In signing the historic 1986 tax reform, President Ronald Reagan expressed pride that "millions of the working poor will be dropped from the tax rolls altogether."
Besides, low-income workers are subject to federal payroll taxes, which are not trivial. "Most of the people who pay neither federal income tax nor payroll taxes are low-income people who are elderly, unable to work due to a serious disability, or students, most of whom subsequently become taxpayers," says a report from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Romney is also badly misinformed about the political inclinations of those who get entitlements or avoid paying federal income taxes. The biggest aid recipients are the elderly, so you'd think they would be in the pocket of the Democratic Party. In fact, those over 65 were the only age group that John McCain won in 2008.
Nor are well-paid, high-achieving strivers uniformly conservative in outlook. Four years ago, Barack Obama got a majority among those earning $200,000 a year or more.
Among white voters making less than $50,000 a year, notes pollster Douglas Rivers of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, McCain had a majority. Whites earning more than that, however, went for Obama. Among blacks, by contrast, income differences did not affect voting patterns: Rich or poor, employed or not, they voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
The video offers an embarrassing show of ignorance from a candidate who sells himself as a hardheaded problem-solver. No one will be shocked to discover that Romney, like the Grinch, has a heart that is "two sizes too small." But who would have guessed it's bigger than his brain?
(Steve Chapman is a columnist of The Chicago Tribune and Creators Syndicate.)