WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's controversial claim that 47 percent of Americans "pay no taxes" and are "dependent upon government" is an overstatement that put his presidential campaign on the defensive Tuesday as it scrambled to explain what he meant.
His comments came to light this week in a secretly recorded video of the Republican nominee speaking at a fundraiser in May. He made the comments while explaining how his campaign would not try to win over staunch supporters of President Barack Obama.
After media outlets began talking about the comments, Romney hurriedly held a news briefing Monday night. He said that his words "were not elegantly stated," but he refused to back away from them.
"I'm sure I can state it more clearly and in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that, and so I'm sure I'll point that out as time goes on," he said.
The claim that nearly half of Americans pay no taxes is based on a 2011 finding from the Tax Policy Center, a joint tax research arm of the centrist Urban Institute and center-left Brookings Institution. The center reported in 2011 that 53.6 percent of an estimated 164 million U.S. households paid some federal income taxes, while the rest -- actually 46.4 percent -- paid none.
More than 76 million households paid no income taxes last year, according to the Tax Policy Center. But about 60 percent still paid federal payroll taxes that support Medicare and Social Security, said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the tax center. Many also paid federal excise taxes, along with state and local sales, property and income taxes.
"So it's not that they're not paying any taxes," Williams said. "It's just that they're not paying federal income taxes."
The reason, he said, is that more than 38 million, or roughly half of the 76 million households that paid no taxes last year, simply didn't earn enough to have a tax liability under the current tax code.