A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McCain and the Gas Tax


Q: Do the poor drive farther than the rich, as McCain claims?

A: No. McCain is wrong when he claims repeatedly that low-income people drive more. In fact, the affluent drive twice as many miles.

FULL QUESTION

McCain used this anecdote to explain why the gas tax is regressive: 

The people that drive the furthest in America are the lowest income people. You spent enough time in Washington, D.C. to know that the wealthiest live in Georgetown and can almost walk to work. The least wealthy live the furthest away and drive many, many miles.

It seems to make sense, but when I tried to find the numbers to back this up, it didn’t match up.

FULL ANSWER

McCain has been repeating this mistake for months. He’s correct when he says that the gasoline tax is regressive, but he’s badly mistaken about the reason for that.

The quote sent by our reader is from an April 15 interview with McCain by CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, and McCain was still saying it on May 1 to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough:

McCain, May 1: I think it’s obvious that the lowest-income Americans drive the furthest and probably they spend more on gasoline because of the age of their automobiles. Why don’t we just give them a little break for the summer? Maybe buy a better meal for their kids, maybe travel a little bit.

And he said it again the next day on syndicated talk-show host Glenn Beck’s program:

McCain, May 2: I think the gas tax is one of the most regressive taxes in existence in that lower income people drive further, they drive older automobiles. You know, in Washington, D.C., very wealthy people live in Georgetown and you can literally walk to work. The people that have the low income jobs drive 40, 50 miles.

And he said it in a May 17 interview with Essence magazine, which currently appears on its Web site (the quote is on page 2 of the interview):

McCain, May 17: Look, there is a woman I know who works in maintenance. She drives 40 or 50 miles to work, and she drives an older car. The rich people live in Georgetown; they can walk to work. Gas taxes are regressive on lower-income people.

As recently as June 2, he was leading his remarks to voters by stating his support for a summer "holiday" from gasoline taxes. Journalist Jonathan Martin of The Politico quoted McCain as telling a Nashville crowd that in Washington "the wealthiest people live in Georgetown" and can walk downtown to work, while the lowest-income workers live the furthest away.

Getting It Backward

But McCain has his facts backward. While most economists would agree that low-income persons feel the pinch of rising gasoline prices more keenly than the affluent, that’s because they have less money and not because they drive more miles. The truth is, affluent families drive twice as many miles as lower-income families. They own more vehicles and drive each of them farther on average. And they spend more than twice as much on gasoline.

Our source for this is the most recent survey data released the Energy Information Administration. This table gives the pertinent figures.

U.S. Household Vehicle-miles Traveled, 2001
Family IncomeNumber of vehiclesVehicle miles traveled (thousands)Miles per vehicle (thousands)GallonsCost
Less than $5,0001.413.59.6620$824
$5,000 to $9,9991.413.49.6647$854
$10,000 to $14,9991.413.29.4644$851
$15,000 to $19,9991.516.210.8788$1,032
$20,000 to $24,9991.616.610.4794$1,054
$25,000 to $34,9991.719.311.4940$1,248
$35,000 to $49,9992.023.811.91,183$1,566
$50,000 to $74,9992.128.313.51,393$1,855
$75,000 or More2.531.912.81,549$2,141
Source: Energy Information Administration
Note: "miles per vehicle" column is calculated by FactCheck.org from EIA figures.

 

Highlights from the survey:

  • Households with income of $75,000 or more drove nearly two-and-a-half times as many miles as households with income between $10,000 and $14,999.
  • Those same upper-income households owned more vehicles, an average of 2.5 versus an average of 1.4 for the lower-income group.
  • The over-$75,000 households drove each of their vehicles farther, an average of 12,800 miles per vehicle versus 9,400 for the lower-income group.
  • The top income group spend $2,141 on fuel, more than double what the lower income group spent.

These figures were released in 2005. New figures are being gathered right now and won’t be released for some time, but we know of no reason to suppose that driving habits relative to income have changed much in recent years. Contrary to McCain’s notion, those who can afford to drive more, do.

Be a FactChecker
 
Special thanks to subscriber Rich Cain for bringing McCain’s mistake to our attention. Not only did Rich find McCain’s poor-drive-more claim suspicious, he even dug up the EIA survey that contradicts it. We confirmed with the EIA’s Mark Schipper that these are indeed the most recent official statistics available on driving habits of different income groups. For being such an on-the-ball citizen, we’re making Rich an honorary FactChecker.
 
We encourage all of our readers to do the same. If you hear a factual claim that sounds suspicious, no matter who is making it, please drop us a line at editor@factcheck.org. And that goes double if you have evidence. We think every citizen should be a FactChecker, like Rich.

–Brooks Jackson

Sources

Kudlow, Lawrence. "Transcript: The McCain Interview." Kudlow’s Money Politic$, 15 April 2008.

Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau blog "The Swamp," video and transcript: "John McCain: GOP ‘brand’ harmed," 1 May 2008.

The Glenn Beck Program Web site, transcript & audio: "Glenn Beck: More McCain," 2 May 2008.

Robertson, Tatsha. "John McCain: A Man Apart." Essence magazine Web site, interview conducted 17 May, site accessed 9 June 2008.

Martin, Jonathan. "McCain brings up gas tax, dings Obama." Politico.com, 2 June 2008.

Energy Information Administration, Office of Energy Markets and End Use. "Household Vehicles Energy Use: Latest Data & Trends" Table A2, November 2005.

Telephone interview with Mark Schipper. Office of Energy Markets and End Use, Energy Information Administration, 9 June 2008.