Generally, there’s nothing wrong with asking people to take responsibility for their actions to avoid social ills. Stop littering. Spay or neuter your pets. Vaccinate your children. Get up early enough to eat breakfast so you’re not so grouchy at work. If your diet is making you sick, change it. Under the circumstances, these are all reasonable things to ask.
On the other hand, if you’re asking something to “take responsibility” by doing something that’s either extraordinarily difficult or impossible, you’re either woefully uninformed or sort of a dick. You don’t ask people to “take responsibility” by rescuing neighbors from their burning home, scoring in the top 1% on the SAT, or baffling doctors by learning to walk despite a serious spinal injury. Run-of-the-mill “taking responsibility” should not require acts of extraordinary altruism, heroism, or genius.
How should we feel when Mitt Romney goes and says something like this:
These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of people pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
According to Romney, if your income isn’t high enough to pay federal income taxes, you’re apparently not taking “personal responsibility and care” for your life. Is it reasonable for Romney to ask people to earn enough that they’re paying income taxes—or is this just an example of out-of-touch dickery? [Spoiler Alert: It’s dickery.]
How long a work day would you need to put in at a minimum wage job to pay federal income taxes? Because it’s Romney’s comment, let’s use his family profile. We’ll have two parents, one of whom works.1 And let’s limit it to two children rather than Romney’s five to avoid an unseemly number of exemptions.
So we have four exemptions at $3,700 each plus the standard deduction of $11,600. So even without tax credits, you would need $26,400.
Because one spouse isn’t working, there is no child care tax credit. There could be up to $2,500 in education credits per child—but let’s say the kids are younger and go with the lower $1,000 child tax credit for both of them. So that’s a $2,000 credit. To owe taxes at this point, you’d need $19,000 in taxable income—or $45,400 in total income. This still a hair below the EIC phaseout in this case. So to hit zero exactly you would need a few more dollars to bring your annual income to $45,750.
In a given year, you have about 260 work days. Let’s say you work a full day on all of them. This means that any vacation, sick days, or holidays you want had better be paid. To make your $45,750, you need to bring in $174.62 a day. Let’s round that down to $174 to make the math work out more smoothly.
You’re earning the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. To get to $174 a day, you’ll need to work for … 24 hours. Congratulations. You can sleep on the weekends. If you want to get down to an 8 hour day, you’ll need to earn at least $21.75. (You still have to work every day.) Good luck finding an early-career job that pays that well.
If you’re having trouble doing this, I’m sorry. But Mitt Romney isn’t. He thinks you need to take some personal responsibility and care for your life.
After I first posted this, somebody asked, “Why are we assuming the spouse doesn’t work?” We’re not assuming it. We’re stipulating it. There are three reasons for this. First, it’s Romney’s comment so he’d have no grounds to object to using his family’s single income model. Second, as soon as I send the hypothetical spouse to work, child care tax credits come into play and it takes even more hours for the family to earn enough to pay taxes. Third, I think people on the lower half of the income scale should be allowed to have single-earner families. ↩
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