Let’s put this one under the politics of ignorance. About half of Americans don’t pay income taxes. How many of them realize it?

When last month David Corn of Mother Jones posted this video of Mitt Romney’s speech to wealthy contributors, highlighting the roughly half of American adults who don’t pay federal income taxes, it seemed it could be incredibly destructive to his campaign. Romney:

There are 47 percent… who are dependent upon government, who believe that 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. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.

[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Seriously, he wrote off half of the country as economic parasites.

This is potentially quite damaging, except for one thing. It doesn’t matter if someone insults you if you don’t realize it. And that may be precisely what’s going. While only 53 percent of Americans pay income taxes, it turns out 78 percent of Americans think they pay income taxes. Many of them do no such thing.

According to a recent YouGov/Economist poll:

It is… interesting to get a handle on what Americans perceive when they hear “income tax.” The… poll asked, “Do you pay federal income taxes?” Seventy-eight percent said they do. Given that about 54 percent of households pay federal income tax that suggests roughly 24 percent of respondents report that they pay federal income taxes, but do not.

What’s going on here?

The trouble with discussions about federal income tax is that it’s not as if the Internal Revenue Service draws some bright line between people who pay income taxes and people who don’t. While every year Americans have to send their income taxes to different places depending on whether or not they receive a refund, income tax distinctions are ambiguous.

As Georgetown University Government Professor Michael Bailey explains:

What’s going on… is a disjuncture in the technical and ordinary usage of the term “income tax.” Technically, the income tax is a progressive tax on income that does not include the “payroll taxes” paid to support Social Security and Medicare. In ordinary usage, however, these payroll taxes are often considered federal income taxes – after all, on April 15, payroll and income taxes are rolled into the bottom line owed to the federal government.

Americans fill out their tax returns, send them in, and think “yup, I paid income taxes.” But actually it’s often just payroll taxes.

That makes them what, secret moochers?

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer