Mitt Romney video fact check: Is 47 percent of US 'dependent' on government?

In a secret video of a May fundraiser, Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans 'are dependent upon government.' One analysis suggests he might have gotten his numbers crossed.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gets in his vehicle as he arrives at Love Field in Dallas, Tuesday.

Do almost half of Americans get some form of government entitlement?

That is one of the questions that has been raised after Mother Jones magazine on Tuesday released a video of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking to donors at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser May 17.

“There are 47 percent who are with him [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe 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,” Mr. Romney says in the video. 

Is that true?

The short answer is, probably not.

According to one analysis, only the very broadest definition of Americans "who are dependent upon government" yields a number approaching 47 percent.

If Romney is including anyone who receives Social Security and Medicare – both considered an earned entitlement since Americans pay for them – the percentage of Americans receiving money from the government hits 37 percent.

That number is from a study of 2010 census data by Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He did a computer search of people receiving unemployment insurance, Supplemental Security Income (for the aged and disabled), workman’s compensation, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and food stamps. Including veterans in the list added about 1 percent.

But 2010 was a year with above average unemployment. (It never got below 9.4 percent.) Looking at 2007, which was closer to normal at 4.6 percent to 5 percent through the year, Mr. Greenstein found that 30 percent of the population received some form of entitlement.

But many Americans might quibble with a definition of "victims" that includes anyone receiving Social Security. Taking away Social Security and Medicare reduces the share of Americans receiving an entitlement to 25 percent. In 2007, the number was 18 percent.

Some of the programs have a lot of overlap. For example, many of the 46.4 million people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), or food stamps, also get Medicaid (some 58 million people). There is a similar overlap with Medicare and Social Security.  

Greenstein wonders if Romney was considering any household which received some sort of entitlement. For example, one member of the household could be on Social Security while another member worked full time. “You can get closer to 47 percent if you consider households,” he says. “But I don’t think most Americans would consider a spouse who works full time should be included as receiving an entitlement.”

So how did Romney reach the 47 percent number?

Greenstein thinks it was just an error by Romney, who also noted that 47 percent of the population does not pay income tax. “I think he conflated the two figures,” says Greenstein.

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