Doug Walter seems like just the sort of self-starting, up-by-the-bootstraps small-business owner with whom politicians like to have their pictures taken. When Walter got laid off and couldn't find work for almost three years, he decided to take job-creating into his own hands and open a consignment shop in southeastern Pennsylvania.
But what distinguishes Walter, a 45-year-old husband and father of four, from the entrepreneurs routinely praised by officeholders and candidates is that he's one of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's 47-percenters. Walter didn't make enough last year to pay federal income taxes and doesn't expect he will this year, either. And during a rough past few years, Walter has taken advantage of assistance from government programs designed to give people a hand when they're down.
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Romney caused a stir with comments he made during a fundraiser in May about low-income Americans. The comments came to light when secretly recorded video of the remarks found its way to The Huffington Post and Mother Jones last week.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney told donors at the private $10,000-a-head fundraiser.
"All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that 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," Romney said.
Walter sees a parallel between the damage these statements caused Romney and the continuing fallout from a comment President Barack Obama probably wishes he'd never hear again. "To my very conservative friends, I laughed and said, 'Well, this is Romney's 'You didn't build that','" said Walter, who lives in Ivyland and operates his store in nearby Warrington, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia.
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And Romney's got a point—sort of, said Walter. "He's right. Half of America doesn't pay taxes. But you know, there's a difference between making $23,000 and not paying taxes and making $223,000 and not paying taxes. There's a huge difference."
As Walter tries to build his business and hopes one day to be able to pay himself a salary, he's confounded by rich people who complain about paying taxes. "Oh, please, let me have that problem," he said.
The wealthy ought to appreciate where their tax dollars go, as Walter sees it. "Taxes are paid so that the community remains whole, OK? Simply put, rich people pay taxes so that their government and their local municipalities will keep them safe from the people who don't have money."
For Walter, his neighbors and others struggling since the Great Recession began in 2007, not paying taxes isn't a boon. "I don't think they want the government to pay their way, to give them food, clothing and shelter," he said. "They would rather do something for themselves."
"I see there's people who just want to wear their pajamas outside and collect that government check once a month and they're OK with that," Walter said. "But that standard of living is not what most people want."
For Walter, the assistance he's received has been a means to get back on his feet and a way to eventually not have to rely on help from the government. He was paid unemployment insurance for the full 99 weeks allowed and received food stamps for a while. He will get help paying his heating bills this winter, and qualified for needs-based grants that cover the costs of his youngest child attending Pennsylvania State University.
Signing up for unemployment felt "wrong" at first and Walter didn't fight when his food stamp benefits were taken away. "I had pants with no holes in them and so I kind of felt like maybe I didn't belong there. I can still afford $12 jeans at Walmart so maybe I don't need to be there," he said of the government office that handled his food assistance.
So does Walter feel like Romney was talking about him? "I mean, my daughter's going to school for no charge to me. I think that type of blanket statement like that would definitely apply to me," he said.