Sunday, February 12, 2012

The geography of "the dole" (and perhaps some hypocrisy around the need for it)

A story in today's New York Times, "Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It," discusses the extent to which Americans depend on government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, income supports and veteran's benefits--even as many of the same Americans decry the welfare state and call for smaller government. Whereas the "share of Americans' income ... from government benefit programs" was just 8% in 1969, it has more than doubled in the four decades since and now stands at nearly 18%. Here's an excerpt from the Times front-page story:
The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54% in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.
The dateline for the story is Lindstrom, Minnesota, population 4,442, the largest city in Chisago County. Chisago County has a population of just over 50,000, making it nonmetropolitan based solely on population. However, it is part of the Minneapolis-St.Paul-Bloomington Metropolitan area. The NYT story suggests it is now largely a commuter community of the Twin Cities, having mostly abandoned its agricultural roots.

Journalists Benyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff conducted numerous interviews for this lengthy feature, and it is accompanied by a number of video clips of conversations with Lindstrom residents. Several acknowledge the extent of their receipt of government assistance, even as some also articulate political opposition to public benefits and advocate complete self-reliance. Many in the town supported Tea Party candidate for U.S. Congress, Chip Cravaack, who in 2010 defeated Democrat Jim Oberstar who had held the seat for 36 years. Also indicative of local politics is the fact that Rick Santorum garnered 57% of the votes cast in the Republican caucuses this past week.

Indeed, the journalists quote a Dartmouth professor who has studied the correlation between politics and receipt of public benefits. The political science professor, Dean P. Lacy, found that "[s]upport for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut governmental spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependance, the greater the support for Republican candidates."

I am on the record, of course, as objecting to the labeling of entire states as "rural" (read more here, here and here), but even casual observers will realize that states popularly thought of as rural --and with large numbers of rural voters--are among the "reddest" states.

To some extent, this trend is reflected in an interactive map that accompanies the NYT story. It shows county-level data regarding the average amount of government benefits received in each county, as a percentage of total income. The counties that stand out as having especially high rates of receipt of government benefits --those constituting more than 40% of all income--are nearly all nonmetropolitan. They include the following (when provided, the percentage shown in parentheses is the county's 2010 poverty rate):
  • Searcy (22.7%) and Stone counties in Arkansas
  • Apache County (34.4%), Arizona
  • Sierra (22.5%), Guadalupe, and Mora (11.9%) counties in New Mexico
  • Hickory (15.4%), Wayne, Reynolds, Oregon (24%) and Benton (18%) counties in Missouri
  • Shannon (53.5%) and Buffalo (49.3%) counties in South Dakota
  • Sioux County (47.2%), North Dakota
  • Wilcox and Perry (28.8%) counties in Alabama
  • Jefferson (39%), Sharkey, Humphreys (42.9%), Holmes, Quitman, and Webster (25.4%) counties in Mississippi
  • San Augustine (21.7%), Starr, Zavala, Dickens, and Brooks (34%) counties in Texas
  • Fentress, Scott, Grundy and Perry (24.2%) counties in Tennessee
  • Lewis, Clay, Lee (31.6%), Whitley, Cumberland, Wayne, and Bell (29.4%) counties in Kentucky
  • Cherokee County (13.2%), North Carolina
  • Telfair County (31.3%), Georgia
  • Wade Hampton Census Area, Alaska
  • Webster, Roane, and Summers (21.6%) counties in West Virginia
  • A number of counties in northern Michigan, including Ontonagon County (12.7%), in the Upper Penninsula
A few of these I recognize as both persistent poverty counties and as counties in which the economy is highly dependent on government employment, e.g., Sioux County, South Dakota and Apache County, Arizona. Others, however, fall into neither category, though it is not surprising that the vast majority of these are high poverty counties.

I could not help note that residents in Nye County, Nevada, the subject of this post which suggested it is "Ron Paul country," had a very high rate of receipt of government benefits, at 28.78% of all income. Nye County's poverty rate is 18.9%.

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