Conservative States Rely Most on Government Benefits

Political scientists like to argue that politics is about who gets what and that self-interest tends to drive policy preferences. But the real world doesn't always work this way -- certainly not when it comes to government benefits. Some of the same states where residents rely most heavily on public programs routinely elect politicians who are determined to slash these very same programs.

The New York Times has a fascinating chart today on the share of personal income that comes from government benefits, broken down by state. The chart shows how these benefits -- including those made possible by the federal stimulus bill of 2009 -- became ever more crucial following the economic downturn.

It's interesting to compare figures for some of the states most dependent on government with the share of presidential vote won by John McCain in 2008, as well as how senators from these states voted on the stimulus bill and the critical March 2010 bill extending unemployment benefits.

West Virginia: 28 percent of all personal income in this state come from government programs. McCain won the state by 13 points. Both senators voted for the stimulus and one voted for UI benefits. 

Mississippi: 26.2 percent of personal income from government benefits; McCain margin: 13 points. Both senators voted against the stimulus and UI benefits.

Kentucky: 24.8 percent income from benefits; McCain margin: 17 points. Both senators voted against the stimulus and UI benefits.

Arkansas: 24.5 percent income from benefits; McCain margin: 20 points. Both senators voted for the stimulus and UI benefits.

South Carolina: 23.4 percent income from benefits; McCain margin: 9 points. Both senators voted against the stimulus and UI benefits.

Alabama: 23.4 percent income from benefits; McCain margin: 22 points. Both senators voted against the stimulus and UI benefits.

Much has been written about the way that working class whites vote against their own economic self-interest. Clearly this rift remains as large as ever. Most dramatic is the case of older conservative voters who are backing the likes of Paul Ryan even as they rely on Medicare and Social Security. (Many red states have a disproportionately older population, which helps explain their heavy reliance on government benefits.)

The other side of this coin, as I have written elsewhere, is that Democrats win some of their highest margins in wealthy coastal and metropolitan areas that pay a disproportionate share of federal taxes. Taxpayers in just three heavily Democratic states -- California, New York, and Illinois -- paid as much as in federal taxes in 2007 as residents of all 22 of the states that John McCain won in 2008. California residents paid more to the U.S. Treasury than the entire deep south combined, excluding Texas.

Overall, the federal government takes money from affluent Democratic states and subsidizes poorer Republican states. And yet it is lawmakers from these states who are leading the attack on government and "redistribution."

That's not how politics is supposed to work.

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