WASHINGTON -- When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said at a May fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans depend on the federal government for assistance, he was understating his case. It's closer to 100 percent.
Ninety-six percent of Americans have benefited from government help at some time, including from breaks in the tax code, according to Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University and John Sides, an associate political science professor at George Washington University.
The remaining 4 percent? Most are young adults who don't qualify for most government programs, they say.
"You might get to a point in midlife where you think, 'I'm one of the earners, not one of the takers,'" Ms. Mettler said in an interview. "In fact, your life has long been affected by the social policies you were able to use early in life, such as a Pell grant."
While Medicare and Medicaid -- which covered more than 100 million Americans combined last year -- are the most obvious government benefits along with Social Security, there are many other policies and programs available to people.
These include the tax credits or itemized deductions used by more than 70 percent of filers; Pell grants, which in 2010-2011 aided approximately 9.3 million low-income people, or 36.3 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students, in paying for college; and the G.I. bill, which has been used for educational benefits by 21.9 million veterans from the program's inception through Sept. 30, 2011.
"As the data shows, Mr. Romney's comment managed to offend just about everyone in America," said Mark McKinnon, a former political adviser to President George W. Bush and one of several Republicans who have distanced themselves from the candidate's remarks.
The 96 percent figure comes from a national survey of 1,400 people conducted in 2008 by the Cornell Survey Research Institute for Ms. Mettler. Ninety-six percent of respondents said that at some point in their lives they had benefited from at least one of 21 government social policies. Sixty-five percent said they had used four or more.
Mr. Romney's assertion at the Florida fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as "victims" dependent on government leaves out the millions more who have taken advantage of tax deductions, which are just another way the government redirects money for public purposes.
Mr. Romney's tax returns indicate that he benefited from preferential rates on charitable giving. He makes most of his income from investing his fortune, estimated at $250 million, and much of that income is taxed at a top rate of 15 percent, rather than the 35 percent that applies to wages.
Mr. Romney, 65, is a co-founder of Bain Capital, a Boston- based private-equity firm. He paid a 14.1 percent federal tax rate on $13.7 million of income in 2011, his campaign said on Sept. 21, and his previously released 2010 tax return showed that he paid a 13.9 percent rate on $21.7 million in income.
For 2011, 46 percent of households didn't pay federal income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan group in Washington. About half had no tax liability because of standard deductions and personal exemptions designed to exclude subsistence levels of income from taxation.
The rest received tax breaks, including the earned income tax credit; child tax credit; an exclusion of combat pay; and tax benefits for older Americans such as the partial exclusion of Social Security money from income. The Tax Policy Center said most of the workers who owe no income tax pay Social Security taxes and other levies imposed by their states and localities.
President Barack Obama attacked Mr. Romney's remarks.
"I don't think we can get very far with leaders who write off half the nation as a bunch of victims who never take responsibility for their own lives," he said in a campaign speech on Sept. 27 in Virginia Beach.
Most voters are aware of Mr. Romney's leaked comments. Fifty- five percent reacted negatively to them while 23 percent reacted positively, according to a Sept. 27-30 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Still, 49 percent of the voters who identified Mr. Romney as the candidate who made the statement said the media are giving the story too much attention.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul disagreed that lower capital gains taxes or the child tax credit qualify as government programs.
"Despite the president's efforts and claims, small- business owners providing services to the government and families funding those services with their taxes are not government beneficiaries," Ms. Saul said. "They are hard-working Americans struggling in the Obama economy."
Ms. Saul's response speaks to how some Republicans view government programs. Tax deductions aren't a federal benefit, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and presidential-campaign veteran who ran the Congressional Budget Office from 2003 to 2006.
"We're using income tax to raise funds to pay for the government, and we have chosen not to tax some things for that purpose, and that's because we presumably think they have some social benefit," he said. "If the trend continues and you get into a situation where the people who don't pay taxes are the majority then there's good reason for concern."
Most Americans gain from tax breaks -- known in Washington as "tax expenditures" because they involve revenue the government forgoes, said Jane Gravelle, a senior specialist in economic policy at the Congressional Research Service, which provides policy analysis to U.S. lawmakers. Ms. Gravelle estimates that at least 70 percent of tax filers, or 98 million Americans, have either a tax credit or some type of itemized deduction or both.