Saturday, September 1, 2012

Red States, Welfare, and Poverty

My post about being on food stamps as a child has been featured as part of a story map for the organization Half in Ten. This campaign, which you can learn more about here, aims to reduce the poverty rate by half over the next ten years. The story map is part of their attempts to humanize the often stigmatized use of safety net programs and other social initiatives like SNAP and housing assistance.

Interestingly, this micro-level goal led me to a macro-level question.

The map is color-coded with the darker states representing a higher population percentage living in poverty. Take a look:

It seemed to me that there was a pretty strong correlation between politics and poverty. It's interesting that the states with the highest percentage of people living in poverty are largely in the South. It's also interesting that these states with the highest percentage of people living in poverty have relatively fewer stories. Is it because the stigma of receiving help in these places is higher so people are not as comfortable sharing?

CNN's Jack Cafferty made this connection and asked what it meant that most of the 10 poorest states in the nation were also Republican states. The ten poorest, from highest poverty level, are Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, and North Carolina. 

Mark Hendrickson's Forbes article on the topic takes issue with Cafferty's over-simplified view of the correlation, pointing out that several of those states have Democratic governors (even if they do tend to vote Republican in national elections) and that there is more behind their poverty than politics. For instance, he notes that almost all of the states were slaveholding states and that their economic base was more focused on raw commodities than the manufacturing focus of the North. He also points to the fact that the ten poorest cities are overwhelmingly Democratic. 

Obviously, poverty is not a simplistic statistic, and there is no simple correlation between one factor and poverty (if it were, I imagine Half in Ten's admirable goal would be much easier to combat). Added to this complexity is the fact that income disparity is a large part of the picture. The South, too, seems to be saddled with more income disparity than other parts of the country with well over half of the counties with the largest income disparity concentrated in the South, again in places that tend to vote Republican. 

Further complicating this picture is that even in states that tend to vote Republican and even among people who individually criticize the existence of government assistance programs, use of welfare programs is higher. This interactive map and accompanying NYT article show that a high concentration of the use of these programs is, again, in the Republican-leaning counties, largely in the South. 

Interviews revealed that the people who somewhat bafflingly publicly campaigned against the very programs they were using seem to be caught in a gray area between their big-picture ideals and their real-life experiences. They profiled Mr. Cravaack, a Tea Party supporter whose family depends on income tax credits and Medicaid. When asked about the tension between these things, Mr. Cravaack responded:
“You have to help and have compassion as a people, because otherwise you have no society, but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And that is what we’re doing.”
He's obviously a supporter of fiscally conservative measures, but he hasn't quite been able to resolve the conflict between fiscal conservatism for the nation and his own individual needs as a human being.

We saw a similar conflict when the anti-Obama ad "These Hands" (a response to Obama's "You didn't build that" comment), featured a business owner who was supposed to exemplify the American worth ethic of doing it the hard way, pulling himself up by his bootstraps and building everything with his bare hands. It would have been a great narrative for their cause, except it turns out that the featured business owner received millions in government-funded money to get that business started.

This same conflict showed up several times in the "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicaid" conundrum of 2009. I can't quite figure out if the people who criticize government programs while relying on them are simply having a hard time aligning their values with their needs or if they don't truly understand the nature of the programs they use. Or, perhaps, it's the "othering" of the narrative of assistance. Welfare is something that someone else receives, but what I receive is just a reasonable (or even deserved) use of tax dollars. Most likely it's some combination of all of those factors.

All that to say that I think that Half in Ten is taking a great approach is trying to remove some of the stigma from these programs. Obviously, people use them and need them. Even the very people who campaign against them are benefitting from them, arguably at a higher rate than the rest of the nation. While I sympathize with people who truly have fiscally conservative principles and want to see them reflected in our national policies, simply eliminating these programs does little to address the true problem.

As Half in Ten points out in an explanation of its mission, failing to address poverty--particularly child poverty--leads to greater costs in the long run:
When we take all this into account it becomes clear that short-term expenditures over the next several years to mitigate the effects of poverty and unemployment on children and youth could have major fiscal payoffs over time—offsetting their higher costs in addition to their other broader economic effects. Much-needed reductions in large projected federal budget deficits also should come from addressing the problems that are actually generating these deficits rather than skimping on antipoverty programs.
The idea that proponents of antipoverty programs are somehow blind to deficit issues is a false one. The conversation is largely one of scope. While short-term spending may increase in combatting poverty today, these measures result in an overall reduction to the deficit by ensuring a more productive workforce in the future and curtailing the rising costs (such as healthcare and prisons) that are associated with spiraling poverty rates.

That this is a complicated issue is highlighted again and again by the tensions between the public narrative surrounding assistance programs, the people who actually use them, and the politicizing of these topics. We can begin to change that conversation by remembering that the people who use these program are, at the end of the day, people. Investing in the futures of people is not just morally sound, it's also fiscally sound.


  1. Excellent post and so interesting! You make so many great points and it's respectful throughout (something you can't always count on in debates today)! Visiting from More from Blogher.

  2. Very interesting article. I am not against government programs, but I am against a prolonged/lifetime use of the programs. They are a helping hand, so to speak. A lift up when you are down. Yes, we should help others. The question being~for how long? A few months? A lifetime? I don't think so. There should be limits to all gifts. Thank you for writing an intelligent, informative article.

  3. I tend to agree, but what's the determination of how long to use a program? How about medicare and medicaid for seniors - till they die? If they're limited on time for assistance, isn't that, in essence one of those death panels some folks are so afraid of? With the Boomers retiring, that population is going to be huge, so how do we deal with this? There's got to be a way for the folks who are not in retirement and need the help can get what they need to jump back off and flourish. I don't know what that is, but it needs to be more attractive than staying on assistance, without being punitive.