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Originally published September 24, 2012 at 5:12 PM | Page modified September 24, 2012 at 5:12 PM

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Op-ed: Who are Seattle’s 47 percent?

Guest columnist Sam R. Sperry describes a few of the Seattleites, also known as the 47 percent, who do not pay federal income taxes.

Special to The Times

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SHE is no victim. She is 76, living alone with her two dogs. She works part-time. She owes Seattle City Light money, quite a bit actually.

She is responsible for paying the bill, she told us. From two friends she borrowed half of the $1,000-plus amount but could not raise the rest. So she called the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

We got her request here at St. Joseph Church on Capitol Hill. Like the Salvation Army, the Central Area Motivation Program and a host of other nonprofit organizations and churches who every day help people struggling in poverty, we helped her out with the bill.

She is in the 47 percent who pay no federal income taxes, a group Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney mentioned in a campaign speech.

She surely would reject the notion that she is a victim, that she is dependent upon government, that she does not take personal responsibility.

So would the man in his mid-40s who needed some help on his rent. Well-spoken, neatly dressed and well-educated (a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Washington), he had been laid off, twice.

He exhausted his unemployment. So he sold his car. In fact, he sold most of his possessions but ran out of things to sell. We saw him in a small, one-room apartment, about 10-by-12 feet. He, too, pays no federal income taxes.

He was shy and embarrassed to ask for help. We helped with his bill and have not heard from him since.

Here at St. Jo’s, we see between 10 and 15 people a week: of all ages, of all stations in life, in all sorts of difficulties. Yes, there are a very few who are gaming the system of community supports, like ours. But in my experience, they are very rare among the people we try to assist.

Many of the people we visit suffer from serious disabilities: One fellow with a bad back had been a garbage worker for nearly 20 years; one woman was battling both cancer and diabetes, at risk of losing a leg; one elderly man is emotionally fragile, suffering from a nervous condition.

This latter fellow cannot work and yet he pulls his own weight, slender though it is. He lives in a small but meticulously clean and neat Seattle Housing Authority apartment and manages on but $600 a month. His cheerful disposition is hardly that of a victim.

There has been an enormous amount of political propaganda about an entitlement society. Some talk radio is rife with tales of slackers who do not take responsibility for their own lives.

Too many people seem to believe that if you are poor, or if life has delivered you some bad luck, and you can’t pay federal income taxes, you are a second-class citizen.

Such an attitude may reflect one narrow strain in our American political culture. But it does not represent the “better angels of our nature.” Nor does it square with the values of our founders who adopted our Constitution, which begins:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare ...”

Sam R. Sperry, former associate editorial page editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is a volunteer and member at the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Joseph Parish.

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