AMERICA'S WELFARE QUEENS

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.

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24 Responses to “AMERICA'S WELFARE QUEENS”

  1. mike Says:

    That's crazy – I'd expect CA and Texas to be way above the 1.0 ratio for a number of reasons. How much do you see the same results when you look at urban/suburban/rural msa/zip codes when it comes to pay ratios and voting results? (as much as a pain in the ass that must be, I imagine you'd see very interesting results.)

  2. Samantha Says:

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this story:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90172724

  3. Matthew Says:

    I request that you post more of your raw data! I would like to see a spreadsheet of all 50 (or 48) states like you posted that top ten. Or just e-mail it to me, if you want. I would like to play around with it some more.

  4. Michael Says:

    Yup. My partner's family owns a cotton plantation in Mississippi. They collect a check from the government every year. And they don't even farm it – they lease the land to another farmer who plants it every year.

  5. j Says:

    Excellent research, Ed! Wow, I am impressed!

    I am so proud to have lived in only green states! Yeah!

    I am curious, do you know whether the tax payment data include wages paid to members of the armed services? (I mean actual soldiers, not the civilians with a sweet easy job on the base.)

  6. mike Says:

    The raw data would be interesting if it's already sitting in a postable excel sheet, I'm curious as to the lowest 15. Looking again, it seems like the percapspending is roughly consistent (or to nerd it up, iid), but the ratio is being driven by the percaptax; which is to say, the poorest are the most red (in political and budget terms).

    I wonder, after 5 years of Bush and 11 years of GOP Congress, a dummy variable on red/blue would light up on percapspending; our favorite states get a bunch of cash (~$10K) per person, while the blue ones get to pay for it. (If you were to grab the data from 1993, pre-Gringrich, that would be even more awesomier).

  7. Ed Says:

    J, it includes all Federal salaries, military and civilian. Any community that argues that a military base (and military paychecks) aren't welfare should be prepared to justify why the base needs to be located exactly where it is as opposed to one town, county, or state away.

    Mike, Texas and California receive a truly staggering amount of federal money every year but their economies generate enough revenue to make up for it. If it was its own country, California would have the 10th largest GDP in the world – bigger than Korea, Brazil, Spain, or Canada. Texas can't make quite the same claim but you have to bear in mind the amount of oil and oil-related shipping that transits through the state.

  8. Ed Says:

    There is no limit to the data I could find except for my time. It is all publicly available, albeit not electronically. I have a spreadsheet at home on my laptop.

    There are a number of things going on statistically. MD and VA are enormous outliers in the Spending category because of the amount of Federal government infrastructure and employment surrounding DC.

    Western states – especially the vacant ones – are necessarily expensive because of the raw quantity (again, it's staggering) of land owned by Uncle Sam in places like Montana, Arizona, Wyoming, Nevada, etc. The Nevada Test Site (famous for Area 51) is something like 10% of the total area of Nevada. Alaska…..even worse.

    Looking at all the data and considering the regional variations, the states that stick out like a sore thumb are MS and AL. There's just no geography- or economics-based argument for the enormous amounts of cash they receive except that they are piss poor and get a disproportionate amount of pork-barrel money. And it's not like it's spent on one big draw – there's no Yellowstone National Park or Nellis Air Force Base there. The only Federal institution of appreciable size is the Marshall Space Flight Center. Most of it is simply money to maintain basic infrastructure, which the states are incapable of doing.

  9. BK Says:

    I think this is all great, but the conclusions some reach seem to ignore a couple other factors such as:

    1.) The length of service, leadership stature and party make-up of a particualr state's Congressional delegation.

    2.) The fact that budgets aren't usually built from scratch every year. The previous year's budget is used as a starting point which would imply that at least some of this problem existed long before W took over.

  10. John Says:

    Ed, this is brilliant! I’ve wanted to see this map for a long time, but I’ve just been too lazy and ignorant of data available on the US to put it together myself.
    This data illustrates the fundamental problem for progressives in the US since at least the 1970s. For some reason, the Republicans have succeeded in convincing (relatively) poor, white Americans that government is bad, when they are the ones who benefit most from redistribution in Federal tax and spending policy. By focusing on “values” issues like abortion, gay marriage, and guns along with a heavy dose of thinly-veiled racism (all issues the party only brings up around election time and never bothers to actually do anything about), the Republican party has somehow convinced a whole bunch of states in the south and west to vote contrary to their real economic interests (the only sets of policies the Republican financial backers really care about). On top of that, the Republicans have convinced middle-class voters in the south that they are rich, even though they are only rich compared to the destitute people around them. This chart should be the end of the Republican party in the south and west, if only the Democrats could sell it.
    On a practical note, I’d like to see different cut points for the categorizations of states. I can’t tell from the information you present so far if there is a clustering of states who more or less “break even” of if there is a big difference between AR and MO, or if there are a bunch of states who have a ratio around 1, but which show up as different colors the way you present it now. How much of a difference does it make if we change the colors to “Big Losers”, “Moderate losers”, “Break even” , “Moderate Winners”, “Big Winners “

  11. Russell Says:

    BK, as John says, I do no think that the issue or conclusion is that the Republicans caused the problem. In fact, I do not necessarily see this as a problem, what is at issue is that typically red states benefit the most from blue politics (i.e. places that vote for Republicans are the ones who benefit from the Democratic tax and spend method).

  12. Jim Says:

    I recall reading William F Buckley writing about the same problem from the opposite
    direction forty years ago, commenting that the liberal New York congressional
    delegation was irrational proposing more Federal taxes since New York state
    received such a piddling return on the taxes.

  13. Branden Says:

    Thanks. This is even better than my corporate welfare argument I usually throw out in this argument. Do you have any data on corporate vs. poor welfare numbers?

    I will note further that NM is on the big receive list thanks to a very low population (there's only one area code there for Christ's sake) and Sandia and Los Alamos. I would be willing to bet that the spending going into those two facilities is so buried and secret that the actual welfare in that state could easily be double your numbers. Public data would include several large military bases and the public numbers on those facilities, but would have to leave out the secret pentagon budgets. More states would fall into this I am sure, I am just most familiar with New Mexico as it is right next door.

  14. Nineteen Kilo Says:

    You for got the one other building that is alway pristine: The church where the redneck welfare queens go to be told how morally superior they are to those city slickers that pay the taxes. A tax-exempt building almost always located on prime commercial property.

  15. wahoo lon Says:

    ed –
    great work, two comments.

    1)i'm struck by how many states on the list have a dual personality – federally conservative, but locally democratic.
    a)mississippi, alabama, and west virginia have state governements dominated by democrats, but vote republican in presidential elections (wva has 2 dem senators)
    b) montana and north dakota have very strong statewide democrats (governors or senators) but are as red as red can be in presidential elections.
    c) maine is blue in presidentical elections, but has 2 repub senators.
    what do you make of that?

    2) i agree that military spending is federal economic aid. yet, i also think that in the mind of the red stater, it isn't. i'm wondering if some of the disconnect between federal largess recipients and votes on federal spending is found here. it would be interesting to know what percentage of the federal spending is military (and therefore "justified" in the redstater's mind) and what percentage isn't. higher military percentage than otherwise might explain why they react as they do. another way to get at it is to compare the ratio of taxes paid to military spending recieved and the taxes paid compared to non-military recevied. if the redstates are those with average non-military spending and high military spending that might even more fully explain the disconnect in voting.

  16. David Fetter Says:

    Did you count the tax subsidies mislabeled as "breaks" or "cuts?" If so, how? I strongly suspect that those subsidies would make the red/blue divide even larger if they're not already taken into account.

  17. Shade Tail Says:

    This could be a great weapon against the republicans, but we need to find a way to actually spread the word. The problem is that those voters you're writing about, middle country, low-income, low-information, tend to be republican, etc., have only one or two sources of info, and neither of them are the internet. More often than not, they get a couple tv channels, and maybe a single newspaper if they're lucky, all owned by republicans naturally.

    So this is all fine and well, but it isn't enough to just talk about it among ourselves. We have to find a way to tell *them* about this.

  18. EP3 Says:

    I would like to go one step further and ask, which of these top beneficiaries states, which ones are also coincidently having economies that are doing better than others? Here in Michigan, our economy sucks and we give more than we get back. Yet in Alabama, they get back more and their economy is doing quite well, and their cost of living is much lower.

    I am personally sick of hearing about "welfare queens living off the gov't". I read a book that listed corporate welfare amounted to over $1 trillion in lost tax revenue each year. Cut that stuff out and then I am willing to discuss cutting "welfare queens" off the gov't payrolls.

  19. Al C Says:

    The infrastructure that made the "New South" possible came from other people's taxes. I'm not very popular when I point that out to anti-tax conservatives here in Dixie.

  20. wufnik Says:

    I blogged aobut this a couple of years ago, here:
    http://bazzfazz.blogspot.com/2004/11/red-state-blue-state.html
    it was just after the 2004 elections, and I was pissed.
    Check out an outfit called the Tax Foundation–they track this stuff pretty closely. Personally, I'm in favor of a constitutional amendment prohibiting states from receiving more federal dollars than they contribute.

  21. fairlane Says:

    Nice article.

    A few points.

    Although it's true that many of these states have Democratic Congress', in rural America, Democrats are virtually indistinguishable from Republicans. They tend to be cut from the same hyper-religious, "Pro-Life," and no new taxes mold.

    Second, when you compare the rural parts of these states to the metropolitan areas, you see the same disparity. The cities, where all the "godless liberals" reside, pay the majority of the state's taxes.

    Third, public education, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, etc are all "Socialist" programs. Obviously, the poor tend to depend on these "Socialist" services more than anyone else. In fact, in some counties here in Kentucky, 70-80% of the residents are on some kind of state or federally financed insurance program.

    The response I've received when I bring this up is, tepid. Republicans, per usual, blame everything on the Democrats. One guy told me, "I'd give back the money if I could." Which is absurd, of course. His town couldn't keep the fire house open without that money because they have no tax base (23% unemployment).

    The truth is, this isn't really about "Socialism," as much as it's about "Racism."

    When a Wingnut says "Socialism," he/she means "Welfare," which implies "Black person" living in the "Inner City."

  22. Cate Says:

    Can I see this date minus the Federal spending on Interstate Highways and Military Spending?