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By Bill Wichert February 29, 2012

Congressman Scott Garrett claims half of all Americans don’t pay federal income taxes

The deadline for filing one’s federal income tax return is fast approaching, but according to U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, half of the nation won’t pay any money to the government.

The Sussex County Republican claimed during a Feb. 15 interview on WOR-AM that half of all Americans don’t pay federal income taxes. After discussing the federal budget, Garrett cited that statistic when host John Gambling pointed out the economic turmoil unfolding in Greece.

Garrett (R-5th Dist.) responded, "That’s the absurd situation they’ve got over there where the average person on the street relied so heavily on the government for his livelihood, for his well-being. We don’t want to be in that situation in this country, but we’re getting close to it, when half the Americans don’t pay any income taxes."

PolitiFact New Jersey found that Garrett is right, according to research done by two nonpartisan groups. Both groups confirm that about half of all American households do not have to pay any federal income taxes.

Our PolitiFact colleagues around the country have tackled similar statements a few times before and reached the same conclusion.

First, let’s explain the data that supports Garrett’s claim.

To back up the congressman’s point, Garrett spokesman Ben Veghte directed us to a July 2011 report from the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center.

In that report, the center estimated that about 46 percent of "tax units" would pay no federal income tax for 2011 -- the most current estimate available. The center had estimated that 49.5 percent of tax units didn’t pay federal income taxes for 2010.

A tax unit is an individual or married couple that either files a tax return or would have to file one if their income was high enough, Roberton Williams, a senior fellow with the center, said in an e-mail. In other words, a tax unit is roughly equivalent to a household, he said.

Of the 46.4 percent of units not paying income taxes for 2011, about half was due to the fact that those units had no taxable income after subtracting the standard deduction and personal exemptions, Williams said.

"The other half qualified for various exclusions, itemized deductions, special exemptions, preferential tax rates, and tax credits that wiped out any tax liability," Williams told us. That second group includes tax units benefiting from education and child credits.

Now, let’s talk about the other group backing up Garrett’s statistic.

In April 2011, the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan committee of Congress, released an analysis estimating that slightly more than 50 percent of all tax units would owe no federal income taxes for 2009.

Of those tax units, about 22 percent would have a zero income tax liability and about 30 percent would actually get money back from the government, according to the committee.

So, both groups support Garrett’s claim that roughly half of all American households pay no federal income taxes.

Our ruling

In a radio interview, Garrett claimed "half the Americans don’t pay any income taxes."

That claim is backed up by research from two nonpartisan groups -- the Tax Policy Center and the Joint Committee on Taxation. Both groups have estimated that about half of all American households did not owe federal income taxes in recent years.

We rate the statement True.

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Our Sources

The John Gambling Show, Interview with Congressman Scott Garrett, Feb. 15, 2012

PolitiFact Oregon, Do more than half of all tax filers really pay no federal income tax?, Nov. 17, 2011

PolitiFact Virginia, Eric Cantor says almost 50 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes, May 9, 2011

PolitiFact Florida, Debbie Wasserman Schultz says Wolf Blitzer was wrong to say the wealthiest pay the most in taxes, Sept. 16, 2011

PolitiFact, John Cornyn says 51 percent of American households pay no income tax, July 8, 2011

Tax Policy Center, Who Doesn't Pay Federal Taxes?, accessed Feb. 21, 2012

Tax Policy Center, Why Do People Pay No Federal Income Tax?, July 27, 2011

Email interview with Ben Veghte, spokesman for Congressman Scott Garrett, Feb. 22, 2012

Tax Policy Center, Why Some Tax Units Pay No Income Tax, July 2011

U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, Memorandum to Reporters & Editors: Who Pays What Taxes, Sept. 20, 2011

U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, Hatch: More Than Half of U.S. Households Did Not Pay Any Income Tax in 2009, May 3, 2011

Joint Committee on Taxation, Analysis of Income Tax Liability for Tax Year 2009, April 29, 2011

Tax Foundation, Federal Individual Income Tax Returns with Zero or Negative Tax Liability, 1950 - 2009, Oct. 18, 2011

Interview with Dianne Besunder, spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service, Feb. 22, 2012

Interview with William McBride, Tax Foundation, Feb. 23, 2012

Email interview with John Bloyer, Joint Committee on Taxation, Feb. 22-23, 2012

Email interview with Roberton Williams, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center, Feb. 28, 2012

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Congressman Scott Garrett claims half of all Americans don’t pay federal income taxes

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