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Our Views: Who are the '47 percenters?'
Romneys awkward video uncovers a valid concern: Are too many of us too dependent on government?
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

This election year already is being known as the battle of the viral videos, bringing us deeper into an era when we judge candidates more for what they “meant” to say than what their words clearly tell us.

The latest episode in the presidential race came when a video clip taken at a Republican fundraiser showed GOP nominee Mitt Romney referring to the “47 percent” of the U.S. populace who, to paraphrase, don’t pay taxes, live off government handouts and likely won’t vote for him anyway.

Since the clip emerged, Romney’s campaign has worked to clarify what he meant by those remarks, while admitting their awkwardness. Viral videos to counter that have emerged of President Barack Obama discussing income “redistribution” as an Illinois state legislator. Four years ago, his backhand slap at people “clinging to God and guns” caused another YouTube sensation.

So much for the era of teleprompters and speech writers dictating a race. Nowadays, candidates must be on guard, and on message, at all times lest someone catch them in an unscripted moment they don’t want shared with the world.

Romney’s comments have led Democrats to accuse him of being callous toward those in lower incomes and dismissive of half the country he seeks to serve. The Obama camp had ads responding to it on the air within days.

But beyond the blather of a campaign and notions of what he “meant,” the issue he brought up is one worth giving thought to: Do we have too many Americans taking more from government than they give? This debate is at the crux of what divides the two candidates, their parties and, to an extent, the nation itself.

Then again, wrangling over the role of the federal government is not new. That began at the very founding of our nation and was key to the give-and-take compromises that created the U.S. Constitution.

The debate is renewed with each election, particularly when the U.S. government is trillions of dollars in debt and must prioritize its spending priorities more effectively to remain solvent.

So let’s look at Romney’s claim about who may be overly dependent on Uncle Sam. That “47 percent” number he cites actually includes three separate groups that don’t always intersect.

First, it’s true that number likely is a baseline percentage of Obama voters. Admitting that isn’t akin to saying Romney doesn’t want to lead them; he just knows they’ll be hard to sway, which is merely being honest.

Associated Press research shows that 49 percent of Americans receive some kind of government benefits: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. If you take out benefits to seniors, that leaves about a third of the population relying on the government for some part of their basic needs.

The number of those who don’t pay federal income taxes is about 46 percent, though all wage earners pay Social Security and Medicare withholding taxes, plus local and state sales and property taxes. Many earn tax breaks due to their low incomes or for other reasons. And many wealthy people claim tax deductions that leave them paying less than most.

So while we can quibble over the actual numbers, Romney was more or less right that nearly half of Americans pay little in taxes but receive some federal benefits. The real question then becomes: Is this a good idea?

Despite attempts by Obama and the Democrats to demonize the GOP nominee as an out-of-touch aristocrat, his statement taps into a true concern of many middle class Americans. Few want to dismantle our federal safety nets for those in need, or deny Social Security and Medicare benefits for those who have paid into those programs.

But those who pay taxes to fund what government returns to others would like to know they’re not in it alone. The cries over who should pay their “fair share” ring hollow when nearly half of the people do not, whatever one may deem as “fair” for a given group. Soaking the rich for more only widens that gulf without solving the issue.

When nearly half the population is drawing out more than it pays in, we approach a tipping point. When we have a majority of people dependent on a minority of their countrymen for daily sustenance, something is amiss.

Some have advocated having even the poorest wage earners pay something, even a trifling amount, to give them some skin in the game. If we are, as the president likes to say, all in this together, then shouldn’t we all have a stake in providing for the growing numbers who rely on public assistance? Shouldn’t everyone provide a share to help feed our public revenue streams?

Ultimately, the best solution is for a president and Congress to enact economic policies that will stimulate the free market and get more people working, earning better wages and paying taxes. The more of us who are doing so, the less each will need to pay. That scenario fills both public and private coffers and would restore our shared prosperity.

Obama and Romney should have a spirited, substantive debate on what they both see as the role of government and the responsibility we all share in funding it. Knowing where they stand on this all-important question will help us make the right decision Nov. 6.

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