Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rural (or Western) self-reliance in the face of the recession?

A front-page story in today's New York Times reports on the rates at which residents of different states are availing themselves of the various federal assistance programs for which they are eligible. While it is difficult to generalize too much about the data in Jason DeParle's report, it appears that residents in Western states, including several sparsely populated Great Plains and inter-mountain states, are currently less likely to receive aid.

The article is accompanied by various graphics, which depict at a glance the 10 states with the highest rate of aid receipt and the 10 states with the lowest rate of aid receipt for six different categories of federal assistance: welfare, unemployment, housing assistance, food stamps, health insurance for poor adults, and health insurance for poor children. It reveals inconsistencies: Western states are occasionally at both extremes--sometimes home to the highest percentages of those receiving benefits, but more often home to the the lowest percentages of recipients.

Experiences in South Dakota, Idaho, and Wyoming are illustrative of the contradiction. The rate of receipt of unemployment benefits in South Dakota is the lowest in the nation, at 19%, while the rate of receipt for housing assistance there is the highest, at 45%. For the prior designation, South Dakota is accompanied by its similarly sparsely populated neighbor, North Dakota, but also by Colorado, which has grown rapidly in recent years. At the high end for receipt of unemployment benefits, on the other hand, are Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Alaska, along with Arkansas and states widely known to be hard hit during this recession: Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Housing assistance, on the other hand, is highest in South Dakota and Wyoming in the West, but lowest in 9 other Western states and Florida. Other states with high rates of housing assistance are mostly in South and Appalachia, areas widely associated with poverty: Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Wyoming and Idaho are in the bottom 10 states for receipt of both welfare and food stamps. But many in Idaho get unemployment benefits, and Wyoming is one of the top states for residents' receipt of housing assistance.

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