Posted in Rants on May 5th, 2008 by Ed

In my extensive domestic travels behind the wheel of a car, I've noticed something rather curious about small town rural America. The kind of places one finds in, say, rural Alabama or Middle O' Nowhere, Kansas uniformily look like they hit a peak in the 1950s and have been disintegrating ever since. Driving down their depressing "Main Streets" and counting the fire-damaged, boarded-up, and vacant buildings is sobering, and the overall effect is reminiscent more of an abandoned theme park (Idealized Americanaland) than an actual human settlement.

Here's the curious part. There are inevitably two buildings in the town that aren't decrepit: the Post Office and another building housing a rotating cast of Federal agencies (Bureau of Land Management, USDA, and so on). These neatly-kept, nondescript brick buildings represent the only stable employment and the last remaining reason for the town to exist at all. In other words, if not for Federal dollars, the rural bastions of knee-jerk lower-my-taxes-at-all-costs conservatism would blow away at the next stiff breeze.

It's amazing how largely conservative rural America seems unable to make the connection between tax-and-spend Big Government and their farm subsidies. Or between paying taxes and having a job with the USDA for 40 years. Or between taxes and Air Force base. As these wayward New Deal Democrats ("I was a Democrat until they got all liberal!") have trouble getting the picture, I have made the picture for them:

This image represents the Lower 48** states color-coded by the ratio of how much money they receive in Federal spending to how much the Treasury collects in taxes from that state. For example, Tennesseeans pay $7053 per capita in taxes (including all sources of taxation, not just individual). But the state receives $8107 per capita among all sources of Federal spending annually, giving it a ratio of 1.15 (a buck-fifteen received for every dollar paid in taxes). Tennessee, like 34 other states, is a Welfare Queen.

Using data from 2005*** only 15 states give Uncle Sam more than Uncle Sam gives back. Minnesotans and Delawareans (?) get back less 50 cents of each dollar they pour into the Treasury. On the far opposite end of the spectrum, some states receive three dollars in Federal spending for every dollar contributed. Anyone want to guess what the 15 highest-ratio states tend to have in common?

Yes, many of our nation's backwaters of right-wing hot air are limping along thanks to massive Federal subsidies, both direct and indirect. I shudder to think how bad Mississippi would be if it wasn't getting our cash at a 3-to-1 ratio. Then again, thanks to Trent Lott's mastery of the fine art of pork-barrel politics hidden beneath a shroud of anti-government rhetoric, I'll never have to.

Our national conception of what is "welfare" or a government subsidy is badly in need of revision. The straw man argument claims that welfare is Uncle Sam handing someone a check for doing nothing. Conceived more broadly – not to mention more accurately – government subsidies include every farmer whose lifestyle is supported by taxpayer dollars and every town whose main sources of employment and dollars circulating in the economy are Federal. The angriest invectives often come from towns that would blow away like a tumbleweed without the Air Force base, the Federal prison, the USDA station, the National Park Service regional HQ, or the USGS office. Oddly enough, John Doe seems to define welfare as tax dollars spent subsidizing someone's lifestyle……someone else's lifestyle, that is.

**AK and HI were excluded to simplify the ArcMap image, which needed to be of a manageable yet legible size. Suffice it to say that both states are huge sucking sounds which gobble up tax dollars and send precious little money to Washington in return.

***Source data: 2005 Consolidated Federal Funds report and Current Population Estimate (US Census Bureau), 2005 Total Tax Collections (Internal Revenue Service). Analysis done in ArcMap 9.2 using TIGER files provided by ESRI.