Allen West, a Republican candidate for Congress for the South Florida seat now held by Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, claims that close to half of Americans aren't paying "any taxes." On a page about the economy on his Web site, West claims, "Currently we have some 40-45% of Americans who are not paying any taxes."
That's a strong claim -- that nearly half of Americans aren't paying "any taxes." We wondered, could that be true?
First, a look at the context in which West made this claim. He made it in a section that focuses on income taxes -- though he said "any taxes":
"If we are serious about restoring the American economy then suspend payroll taxes until the situation improves. I would begin with a 3 month suspension and willingly extend that to 6 months if necessary. In order to inspire investment, innovation, ingenuity, and real growth we must end capital gains, dividend, and death taxes, just abolish immediately. We should begin to redefine our tax code, no more progressive tax system; we need to go to a flat tax system. Currently we have some 40-45% of Americans who are not paying any taxes; a (flat tax) rate of around 15-17% would be adequate. A twist I recommend is to have a flat tax up to an income level of $2 Million, then institute a progressive system. My intent is to inspire Americans to earn and develop their wealth.:
The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that analyzes federal income tax issues, found the number was actually 36.3 percent based on tax year 2008 filed in 2009. The figure refers to federal income taxes.
"We found that out of the 142 million tax returns filed, roughly 51.6 million paid no income taxes or had negative income tax liability,'' said spokesperson Natasha Altamirano in an interview April 26, 2010. That equals 36.3 percent "who paid no income taxes or got additional money through refundable tax credits" and she added the 2008 numbers are actually the record high.
Altamirano said that it's important be precise in describing that group. "One of the problems is when people say 'half of everyone, one-third of everyone does not pay taxes' -- that's not true,'' she said, because it omits other types of taxes such as property and sales taxes that those people still pay. "This is just federal income tax. Unless they are saying 'federal income taxes' it's just not true.''
Another measure: According to the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, 46.9 percent of Americans paid no federal income taxes for 2009, said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center.
We read him Allen West's quote about 40 to 45 percent of Americans not paying "any taxes," and Williams said: "That's not true at all."
People who don't pay income taxes probably pay taxes in many other ways such as state and local sales tax and state and federal taxes on gasoline and alcohol. To avoid paying taxes entirely, "you couldn't drink, you couldn't smoke, you couldn't drive a car, you couldn't live in a house,'' Williams said. "It's hard to avoid them. We are very careful when we say 47 percent pay no federal income tax."
West campaign spokeswoman Valentina Weis said West was referring to federal income tax.
"This paragraph refers to Allen's position on the federal income tax, and it has been well documented that the mentioned percentage (actually quoted higher in some instances, 47 percent) do not pay any federal income taxes,'' she wrote in an e-mail.
We spoke to West, who also told us that his claim referred to federal income taxes. When asked why he didn't state "federal income taxes" rather than "any tax" he said:
"I presume people are smart enough to know what I'm talking about because I'm running for federal office,'' he said in an interview.
West's campaign provided links to an editorial in USA Today and articles from CNN, the AP and Business Insider which cite the 47 percent figure.
West's statement was made within a paragraph in which he discussed taxes, including several aspects of the income tax, but it appeared on a page about the economy that covered a range of financial issues including the "death tax," sub-prime mortgages and foreign aid. If West meant to say 40 to 45 percent of Americans don't pay "federal income taxes," he could have been more specific. As it is currently worded, the sentence is not specific and can lead people to believe he was referring to all types of taxes. So for the lack of important context, we rate this claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.