Who are the Real Welfare Queens?*

*Well, one of them is Michelle Bachmann.

Having lived in the middle of the country all of my life in the biggest cities in large states with geographically huge rural areas, I’m more than aware of the urban v. rural dilemma of where you raise taxes and where you spend them.  All of these states are also bright red for the most part.  Iowa and Minnesota occasionally go blue these days.

One of the biggest disparities always comes with distribution of highway taxes. In Nebraska, as example a huge amount of tax dollars for taxes are raised by Lincoln and Omaha, but the majority of the highway dollars are spent on maintaining and building roads to almost no where. Visiting Cherry County Nebraska is a trip to nowhere. It’s a beautiful part of the state, it’s the state’s biggest county.  It’s basically the Nebraska outback and there are more cows and buffalo than people.  According to Wiki,  Cherry County ‘had a population of 6,148 at the 2000 census“.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 6,010 square miles (15,565 km²). 5,961 square miles (15,438 km²) of it is land and 49 square miles (127 km²) of it (0.82%) is water. It is by far the largest county in land area in Nebraska and larger than the states of Connecticut, Delaware, or Rhode Island.

My friends from other countries–especially from Europe–or friends from the NE do not really understand the idea of starting a drive on the east side of a state and taking all day to get to the other.  A drive across states like North or South Dakota,  Montana or Wyoming is where you get the real feel of the term the American Outback.  Even on the interstate, you see more antelope and cows then you ever see people.  You can actually go miles before you get even get a rest stop.  It’s that vast.

So, I was born in the town that is home to the Pioneer Woman Museum.  That’s the little town of Ponca City, Oklahoma. My great grandmother’s maiden name was Chisholm.  Yes, that Chisholm.  I come from a long line of Pioneer women.  I went to the same University as Willa Cather and I celebrated the centennial of Nebraska in 4th grade by spending some time with our school in a mock up of a pioneer school.  We wore bloomers and long dresses and bonnets. We sat our benches and wrote on our own little chalk boards.  I have to admit, the first set of books I read all the way through was the Little House on the Prairie series.  My father’s side of the family is a wonderful blend of German and Irish immigrants and Native Americans.  Yes, My Antonia is one of my favorite books. It’s about the Great Nebraskan Outbook.   I remember the uproar when the Poppers presented their “Buffalo Commons” idea.  It was a major controversy.

The Buffalo Commons is a conceptual proposal to create a vast nature preserve by returning 139,000 square miles (360,000 km2) of the drier portion of the Great Plains to native prairie, and by reintroducing the buffalo, or American Bison, that once grazed the shortgrass prairie. The proposal would affect ten Western U.S. states (Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas).

Some of the Buffalo Commons idea has evolved naturally.  Ted Turner actually owns a lot of the Nebraskan outback and has turned his land into Buffalo Ranches.  He’s done this in several Western States including Montana. In the 80s, I worked as a consultant to the State’s Department of Economic Development and as a consultant to many small towns trying to keep the only industry in the county.  I consulted with chicken slaughtering plants, plants making parts of bombs, plants making parts for cars, plants making taco chips, and all kinds of things.  With that much territory and that few people, it’s hard to get a tax base to support roads, schools, government, parks, libraries, and all the things that folks on the east and west coast take for granted.  When you come from pioneer stock or the Native American tribes in the region, you really do relish a sense of self reliance in a very big land.  Yet, like many of the myths of the Old West, the New West is a lot more swagger than reality.  Native American tribes may do it on their own, but the sons and daughters of pioneers have their own special welfare state going.

However, that sense of rugged independence is belied by the facts.  Ah, yes, we’ve finally gotten to the purpose of all my romanticizing of childhood on the edge of nowhere that I really would’ve traded for Manhattan. We subsidize the Prairie Dream hugely.  They don’t like to admit it in the list of states proposed as locations for a great huge nature preserve, but they are welfare queens.

Jeff Frankel took a lot of numbers and came up with the graph and results in Red States, Blue States and the Distribution of Federal Spending.  I’ve never lived in a state that has paid more in federal taxes than it receives.  That’s the big lie in this part of the country.  We need the very blue states that most of the folks despise. We’ve talked about this before, but Frankel’s Weblog has the numbers.

The accompanying chart contains 50 data points, one for each state.  The data are from 2005, the most recent year available.  One axis ranks states by the ratio of income received by that state from the federal government, per dollar of tax revenue paid to the federal government.   Personally, I think the “red state / blue state” distinction is overdone.  But to capture the widely felt tension between the heartland and the coastal urban centers, I have put on the other axis the ratio of votes for the Republican candidate versus the Democratic candidate in the most recent presidential election.

It will come as a surprise to some, but not to others, that there is a fairly strong statistical relationship, but that the direction is the opposite from what you would think if you were listening to rhetoric from Republican conservatives:   The red states (those that vote Republican) generally receive more subsidies from the federal government than they pay in taxes; in other words they are further to the right in the graph.  It is the other way around with the blue states (those that vote Democratic).

One reason is that the red states on average have lower population; thus their two Senators give them higher per capita representation in Washington than the blue states get, which translates into more federal handouts.    The top ten feeders at the federal trough in 2005 were: New Mexico, Mississippi, Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama, South Dakota, Kentucky and Virginia.   (Sarah Palin’s home state of Alaska ranks number one if measured in terms of federal spending per capita.  Alabama Senator Shelby evidently gets goodies for his state, ranked 7, by indiscriminately holding up votes on administration appointments.)  The top ten milk cows were: New Jersey, Nevada, Connecticut, Minnesota, Illinois, Delaware, California, New York, and Colorado.

Perhaps in determining how the federal government redistributes income across states one should view its role more expansively than is captured in the budget numbers.     In the western states there are federal water projects that subsidize water for farmers, artificially low grazing fees for ranchers, and leases for hard rock mining and oil drilling on federal lands that have historically charged artificially low prices.   Perhaps the biggest federal redistribution program of all is massive agricultural subsidies.  The four congressional districts that receive the most in farm subsidies are all represented by “conservative” Republicans, located in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Texas.  (Michele Bachmann’s family farm apparently received $250,000 in such farm payments between 1995 and 2006.)

The most commonly ignored area of geographical redistribution is the federal government’s permanent policy of “universal service” in postal delivery, phone service and other utilities (electricity; perhaps now broadband…).  Universal service means subsidizing those who choose to live in remote places like Alaska, where the cost of supplying these services is much higher than in the coastal cities.   Perhaps they should move…

It’s nice to see that some one is setting the record straight.  The transfer of taxpayer wealth is going to places that aren’t the memes of either the tea party, the Republican Party, screamers like Glenn Beck, or fuzzy thinkers like Michelle Bachmann.  The true welfare state recipients are the ones that scream the loudest about the welfare state. This hardly fits in with their message of doing it without the help of big government.