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The 47% charge in U.S. history

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | September 19, 2012

There are many angles — and many comments on each angle — to Mitt Romney’s statement that 47% of American voters are “dependent upon government, … believe that they are victims, … believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, … that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” and “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Mitt RomneyPundits have already dissected the political ramifications of the speech, what it reveals about Romney’s world-views, and have speculated about his resulting political prospects. Many have presented the underlying numbers. (That is, 47% of American households in 2009 paid no federal income tax; just about all paid other kinds of taxes. By far, most of the 47% were either households of people who worked at poverty wages or of retirees on Social Security.)

My two cents here concerns the emotional resonance of Romney’s claim. Whatever the facts may be, the charge that huge numbers of shiftless moochers live off hard-working taxpayers feels true to many Americans – and has felt true to many Americans for centuries. It is a sentiment rooted in Americans’ exceptional emphasis on individual self-reliance and insistence on conditioning help upon virtue. (I link below to earlier posts that expand on these points.)


Let us recall that while our Founding Fathers were protesting the English monarch’s taxes on them (as in the original Tea Party protest), they also worried that the democracy they were founding might lead to the lower orders taxing them. They tried to build in safeguards against that threat. They distanced the population from power with devices such as the electoral college and having senators elected by state legislatures. They protected wealth holders and favored creditors over debtors and for decades restricted voting to men with property.

Our founding culture emphasized the importance of what was then called “competency” or “virtue”: being financially independent versus being dependent like women, youth, servants, slaves, the poor, and Indians were (see here and here). Only the “competent” – basically, older white men of property – could conceivably have the autonomy to be wise electors in a democracy that could survive populist pressures. Over the years, “competency” and the franchise expanded tremendously, the expansions being accompanied by alarms about the rising threat of mobocracy — not unlike Romney’s warnings.

Our nation grew out of a colonial society which was – by the standards of our day – grudging about helping people in need (see here). If the needy person was a “respectable,” long-term member of the community, one whose suffering was clearly due to no fault of his or her own, some help came – often in the form of being farmed out as a servant. If, on the other hand, the needy person was relatively new to town or marginal to it (say, a recently emancipated servant, a drinker, or an unwed mother), officials would “warn” him or her out of town.

Suspicion that the dependent needy were fakers and moochers persisted.  In the 19th century, the elderly without family support and the younger poor were commonly sent off to miserable almshouses (here). During Depressions, American communities typically treated unemployed workers on the move as not only dangerous (some may well have been), but also as lazy moochers. One California newspaper wrote of the hobos during the post-World War I recession, “There is work practically all the time for those who desire employment and it is not right that industrious people should feed these leeches” (here).

Such sentiments arise from Americans’ emphasis on individual self-reliance both as a value and as the way to understand the world. Even in the face of obviously dire circumstances like economic downturns, most Americans insist that need is all about individual responsibility. Many of the actual victims of bad times, such as laid-off workers, also blame themselves. More than any other peoples, Americans believe that we make our own fates; we are poor or rich, sad or happy because of the choices we make (here). Removing the consequences of those choices – by do-gooder government, or even by too-generous charity – is, in this world view, conducive to dependency and morally wrong.

Whatever the economic, sociological, or political logic of Mitt Romney’s statements, they resonate emotionally and  morally with many Americans, even with many in that very 47 percent.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.