Conservatives, Seniors, and Statistics

I first heard the 47% number way back when conservatives were trying to come up with pithy counterparts to the 99% Occupy meme. They even made their own Tumblr called “We Are the 53%” to contrast themselves with the alleged 47% of Americans who pay no federal income taxes. The campaign generated a little discussion, and usually I saw liberals responding that, yeah, the number is true, but most of those people pay lots of other taxes, too.

But that was 2011. Now it’s 2012, and Mother Jones has unveiled clips of a Romney speech involving that number. Our friends in the media have decided the remarks are a gaffe and have proceeded to report on it so much that they made it a distraction so they could report on how it was becoming a distraction.

Romney’s remarks generally seem to be red meat for the conservative base:

…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. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…

I certainly believe there are a non-zero number of people who fit that description, although it’s certainly not 47%. This time, I heard a new response from liberals: a significant fraction of that 47% are retired seniors!

Most people don’t always belong to a “pay federal income taxes” or “pay no federal income taxes” category; they start in the unpaying category when they’re born, shift to the paying category when they work, and shift back to the unpaying category when they retire. Apparently about 70% of people age 25-60 (h/t @justinwolfers) are currently paying federal income taxes. Looks like pretending that 47% of people are stuck in the unpaying category is as silly as pretending that X% of people are stuck in lower income brackets.

I’m not particularly interested in the exact percentage of citizens who don’t pay income taxes because they are retired (though NPR has some pretty graphics if you are). However, I am very interested in the fact that it’s a non-trivial percentage that is growing and likely to keep growing for some time.

A few decades ago, Americans had a bunch of babies, and those babies grew up and didn’t have as many babies, even though a lot of policies were built on the assumptions that they did. The aging of the Baby Boomers is a demographic phenomenon that’s been expected for a long time, but it’s finally starting to begin to complicate our political discussions in many ways. The growing number of seniors who don’t pay income tax is one way. The growing number of seniors leaving the work force is another.

The unemployment rate is based on the number of people who can’t find jobs and are still looking for them (at least according to the best guesses of the federal government). The unemployment rate has dropped some in the last couple years, but part of that was due to “people leaving the work force” or just “giving up the job hunt” so they weren’t counted anymore. Conservatives love to point out that (for example) “if the labor force participation rate was the same as when Obama took office in January 2009, the unemployment rate would be 11.2%.”

But seniors are complicating this metric, too. Political Math slices some numbers and concludes that “post-Boomers account for 68% of the ‘missing’ work force.” A lot of folks aren’t necessarily unable to find jobs; they’re just retiring in a larger proportion than we’ve ever seen.

This complicates the partisan political narratives. If demographics weren’t shifting but a growing number of people were leaving the labor force and not paying income taxes, conservatives could accurately claim that more people were becoming dependent on the federal government – “takers” ready to vote themselves benefits from the “makers.”

There is certainly a portion of dependency growth that reflects that. But it sure dampens the narrative to find out there is also a portion who is just getting old, a portion who already worked and contributed to federal coffers and now just wants to reap the benefits they think they earned, a portion that tends to vote very conservatively. Republicans like to criticize Obama for the stunning growth of food stamp use during his presidency, but – oh SNAP – seniors can get food stamps, too, though it sounds like the Obama administration is targeting them rather blatantly.

So, no, the shifts in federal dependency don’t reflect partisan narratives about lazy leeches, though as Julian Sanchez explains, that was never a good argument anyway:

Most of them are just responding rationally to the circumstances of the world they live in. In a society where young people know they’ll soon be taxed to support educational subsidies, of course they’ll accept the government college loans they’ll later be expected to fund. In a society where the payroll taxes that support a government pension system leave workers with 15.3 percent less in their paychecks to save and invest for old age, of course they’re going to rely heavily on the system they’ve been paying into when they retire… You can’t legitimately infer a whole lot about people’s preferences between systems from their behavior within systems.

The libertarians say we can’t blame people for taking from the government because we’re just giving them incentives to do so; it doesn’t mean they all want it to be that way.

Of course, it also doesn’t mean we don’t have a growing problem; it just means that old conservative seniors are part of the dependency problem just like the young liberal unemployeds. We’ve given lots of people the incentive and ability to “take” more than they “make” over the course of their lives, and that only works as long as your population’s growing fast enough to cover the difference. It’s not a partisan narrative; it’s just simple arithmetic.

Democrats don’t like to admit that their grand notions of helpful government are mathematically unsustainable, and Republicans don’t like to admit that their favorite voting bloc has become more dependent on the government than their rhetoric suggests.

I suspect aging Baby Boomers will continue to complicate the narratives of both major parties as they fight for political advantages under the new budget realities. This 47% firestorm has been the talk of the beltway for three days now, but in the long run, I think things are just getting started.

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