Freeloaders for Fiscal Austerity
Red-state voters bite Uncle Sam's hand even as it feeds them.
If you live in Mississippi, besides having our sympathy, you can enjoy living a paradox: According to the Tax Foundation, in 2005 (the most recent year for which complete statistics are available), Mississippians received $2.02 in federal money of all sorts for every dollar they paid in taxes. Talk about a great return on your investment! The paradox comes in, however, when you compare Mississippi's wallowing in federal largesse with its voters' attitudes towards "big government" and federal spending: According to a Gallup survey, Mississippi ranks as the most conservative-voting state in the nation.
This irony was recently pointed out by "Incidental Economist" blogger Aaron Carroll of Indiana University. But Mississippi is hardly alone in being, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it, a bunch of "moochers against welfare": Combined, the top-10 "most conservative" states received 21.2% of their income in government transfers, while the 10 "most liberal" states averaged only 17.1%.
In case you're wondering who narrowly beat out Mississippi in scoring the most federal bang for the buck, of course you already can guess the answer: New Mexico, with $2.03 coming in for every outgoing tax dollar to Uncle Sam. But at least we're consistent (a harsher observer might even say "less hypocritical"), ranking in the middle at number 23 on the conservative-liberal scale. Moreover, New Mexico went for Obama and is represented in Congress by four Democrats and only one Republican, our own Rep. Steve Pearce. (The next time Pearce rants against government spending, however, he might want to check his constituents' pocketbooks. Pipe down, Steve, we're making out like bandits here!)
After New Mexico, though, the states most hooked on what GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum called "the narcotic of dependency" also tend to vote for those most vocal about putting America on a 12-step program. The rest of the top-10 states on the government teat, with only a few exceptions, reads like a who's who of red states: Mississippi, Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama, South Dakota, Kentucky and Virginia. Except for number-10 Virginia, all went for Sen. John McCain in 2008 in what was otherwise a heavily "blue" election.
It's not just this one statistical snapshot that portrays states biting the hand that feeds them. Research by Dartmouth political science professor Dean P. Lacy has similarly shown that support for anti-government GOP candidates has grown since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence on everything from crop subsidies and housing assistance to Medicaid, according to the New York Times, the greater the tilt toward Republicans: "Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates. And Professor Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues."
Recent research by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler, author of the new book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, suggests a more charitable explanation than hypocrisy or ignorance for why folks dependent on government programs keep voting as if they weren't. (You could even argue that these red-staters are voting against their own best interests.) Based on a survey of 1,400 Americans, Mettler concluded that many beneficiaries of New Deal and Great Society programs are confused about Uncle Sam's role in their economic lives.
According to Mettler, 44% of Social Security recipients, 43% of people getting unemployment benefits and 40% of those on Medicare say they "have not used a government program." (That memorable "Keep the Government's Hands Off My Medicare" protest inevitably springs to mind.) Overall, until Mettler's survey starts rattling off a litany of 21 popular government benefits ranging from Medicaid to tax breaks, only 43% of all those surveyed say they'd ever used a government social program. By the time they've heard the whole list, though, 96% fess up.
Now, you might complain that certain programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, aren't really government benefits — you pay into them with every paycheck, after all. But most people will collect far more from Social Security and Medicare than they ever contribute (hence those programs' long-term funding worries). And those programs, like unemployment insurance and Medicaid, are legacies respectively of the New Deal and Great Society that politicians on the right vow to dismantle or "reform" into nonexistence.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House GOP budget chairman whose proposed fix for Medicare would turn it into a voucher program, characterizes the struggle against the programs red-state voters ironically depend upon as pitting "makers" against "takers." In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Ryan warned that the "takers" are winning: "The tipping point represents two dangers. First, long-term economic decline as the number of makers diminishes [and] the number of takers grows…. Second, gradual moral-political decline as dependency and passivity weaken the nation's character."
There's some truth to that argument, and certainly the nation's politicians need to address the long-term balance sheet of federal benefit programs. But it's no small irony that those cheering Ryan the loudest are in fact the "takers." Perhaps before Ryan and his colleagues like Steve Pearce dismantle the social safety net, they need to take a hard look at who's really "taking" and who's "making."
In our corner of Pearce's Second District, for example, federal programs including Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, veterans' benefits, income support and unemployment benefits total far more than the national average of 17.6% of income. According to a county-by-county calculation by the Times, as of 2009 Grant County received $10,520 per capita in federal benefits, totaling more than a third of all income (34.28%). Every county in our part of the state gets more than the national average from Uncle Sam, ranging from 24.57% in Doña Ana to 31.4% in Hidalgo, 34.79% in Catron and 36.17% in Luna County.
At least all those counties except Catron voted "blue" in the 2008 presidential election. It's ironic, though, that Catron County — renowned for its anti-government rhetoric — gets more than a third of its per capita income from Uncle Sam.
The rest of us can take some comfort in the fact that, unlike Mississippi, we know how important that New Deal and Great Society legacy is to our lives. Maybe our representative in Congress, though, should stop throwing in with those trying to undermine it.
Paging Officer Krupke
Downtown Silver City needs a crackdown on crime.
It may be just our perception, having never previously lived in a town this small, but Silver City has always struck us as having more police and sheriff's officers on traffic patrol than anyplace else we've ever driven. Some days we count as many as five or six law-enforcement vehicles on the street just on the five-mile drive to the post office and back. Not that we're complaining — there are certainly drivers on the road whose behavior merits ticketing.
But such a visible traffic-enforcement presence does make it hard to understand why local police can't do more to deter crime in downtown Silver City. We realize that the Silver City Police Department employs only 24 uniformed officers and five plain-clothes officers, and that it's struggled in efforts to hire two additional officers. Whether the problem is lack of manpower or the allocation of the available resources, though, something needs to be done to protect the heart of Silver City.
Last month as we delivered bundles of Desert Exposures up and down Bullard and Broadway, we heard about a rash of recent crimes against downtown merchants. One location was actually burglarized twice. In just the first two months of 2012, downtown saw six burglaries or larcenies, plus two vehicle break-ins and a half-dozen instances of graffiti or property damage. Apparently that's not a sharp increase from past months — but it's still too much.
Downtown merchants complain that the police could be doing more. They'd like better communication — most hear about crimes only from other merchants — and an increase in foot patrols.
The police recently stepped up to help a volunteer group, Silver City Against Tags (an offshoot of the Silver City Neighborhood Alliance we covered in October 2011), tackle the spread of graffiti. "SCAT" and local businesses quickly painted over nearly two-dozen downtown graffiti "tags."
But community volunteers can only do so much. Downtown needs a similar concerted effort to crack down on crime. That demands an increased police presence — even if that means taking some officers out of their cars and sacrificing some traffic-ticket revenue.
David A. Fryxell is editor and publisher of Desert Exposure.