When Mitt Romney told well-heeled donors that 47 percent of Americans don't pay federal income taxes, depend on government assistance and won't vote for him, he was flat wrong when it comes to Kentucky, several observers said Tuesday.
Kentucky's poverty rate is well above the national level, and the state's citizens depend more heavily on most forms of government assistance than the nation as a whole, but many strongly support the Republican presidential nominee.
Many Kentuckians who receive government help are expected to vote for Romney — or against President Barack Obama — for a range of reasons, including the Obama administration's tougher environmental regulations on coal and Romney's opposition to same-sex marriage.
"The social issues trump any sort of financial issues" for many disadvantaged people, said Paul Dole, head of Kentucky Communities Economic Opportunity Council, an anti-poverty community action agency in Knox County.
Don Dugi, a political science professor at Transylvania University, called Romney's statement silly.
"A good many of them are going to support him for other reasons," Dugi said of Kentuckians among the 47 percent Romney mentioned.
Romney made the statements at a fund-raising event in Florida in May. The liberal Mother Jones magazine obtained a video of the remarks and posted clips online this week.
The remarks included these: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, 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. And they will vote for this president no matter what ... These are people who pay no income tax."
The statement provoked sharp criticism from Democrats, who said it showed Romney is insensitive to poorer people.
Officials with some Kentucky community-action agencies, which receive government money to help low and moderate-income people, also said Romney's remarks seemed harsh.
"I took it as somewhat of an insult," said Mike Buckles, head of the Daniel Boone Community Action Agency, which operates programs in Clay, Jackson, Laurel and Rockcastle counties.
Buckles and others pointed out that many people who receive some form of government help might not pay federal income taxes, but do pay property, sales and other taxes, and that many worked and paid federal taxes at some point.
Dugi said most people who don't pay federal income taxes are not freeloaders. There are a lot of working poor people; what's more, the people who don't pay federal income taxes include retirees who paid into the system for years, Dugi said.
The percentage of people receiving Social Security in Kentucky from 2006 to 2010 averaged 31.4 percent, compared to 27.5 percent nationally, according to U.S. Census figures. About 6.5 percent of Kentuckians received Supplemental Security Income during that time, compared to 4 percent nationally.
More people have required help with heating, housing, food and other needs in recent years because of the economic downturn, but most people getting help would rather have a decent job, several community-action officials said.
"Most people don't like getting a handout," said Donna Pace, head of the Harlan County Community Action Agency.
Buckles said Romney's statement about people who get government help not voting for him was false to begin with, but it might be more true now because it alienated some people.
Still, Romney is expected to win Kentucky easily, even with an estimated 2010 poverty rate of 17.7 percent compared to 13.8 nationally, and median household income well below the national level.
Romney's margin in Eastern Kentucky, home to many of the state's poorest counties, might be greater than across the state as a whole, observers said.
For instance, Owsley County is the poorest in the state by economic measures. More than 41 percent of its 4,900 residents were poor in 2010, and 52.8 percent of the people receive food-stamp benefits, compared with 19.7 statewide, according to state and federal agencies.
But as in several other relatively poor Eastern Kentucky counties, most residents are registered Republican. Romney will win the county easily, said Molly Turner, head of the Owsley County Community Action Team.
Merely being poor doesn't mean someone will vote Democratic, said Rick Baker, head of the community-action agency serving Letcher, Knott, Leslie and Perry counties
"They have strong opinions on a lot of other issues" besides income and poverty, Baker said of voters.
Democrats in Eastern Kentucky — and many across the state — chose "uncommitted" over Obama in the May primary. Some officials said they expect the margin for Romney to be even greater in November.
"I think 'uncommitted' is going to turn into Romney votes or no votes," said Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Thompson, a Republican. "In my opinion, Romney is going to have no problem carrying Kentucky."
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1