More on Redistribution and Voting Patterns

February 18, 2012

Having previously written about the subsidization of red states by blue states, I was interested to read last Sunday’s NYTimes article on the seemingly paradoxical, some would say hypocritical, attitudes of people who receive aid and their support of a candidate who advocates reductions to the social safety net. The piece highlights Chisago County, northeast of Minneapolis, an area with little poverty but plenty of people who receive government benefits.

Many people [in Chisago County] say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.


But the reality of life here is that [residents of Chisago County] continue to take as much help from the government as they can get. When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less, many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears. It is much easier to promise future restraint than to deny present needs.

“How do you tell someone that you deserve to have heart surgery and you can’t?” Mr. Gulbranson said.

He paused.

“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 paused again, unable to resolve the dilemma.

“I feel bad for my children.”


The government helps Matt Falk and his wife care for their disabled 14-year-old daughter. It pays for extra assistance at school and for trained attendants to stay with her at home while they work. It pays much of the cost of her regular visits to the hospital. Mr. Falk, 42, would like the government to do less.

“She doesn’t need some of the stuff that we’re doing for her,” said Mr. Falk, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in North Branch. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing if society can afford it, but given the situation that our society is facing, we just have to say that we can’t offer as much resources at school or that we need to pay a higher premium” for her medical care.

Mr. Falk, who voted for [upset winner over long-serving Congressman Jim Oberstar, GOP Representative “Chip”] Cravaack, said he did not want to pay higher taxes and did not want the government to impose higher taxes on anyone else. He said that his family appreciated the government’s help and that living with less would be painful for them and many other families. But he said the government could not continue to operate on borrowed money.

“They’re going to have to reduce benefits,” he said. “We’re going to have to accept it, and we’re going to have to suffer.”


Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates. [Minnesota, it should be noted, is not one of those states. It contributes more to the federal treasury than its residents receive. –ed.]

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates [like Minnesota does –ed.]. And [Dartmouth political science professor Dean P.] Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues.

Chisago has shifted over 30 years from dependably Democratic to reliably Republican. Support for the Republican presidential candidate has increased relative to the national vote in each election since 1984. Senator John McCain won 55 percent of the vote here in 2008.

Residents say social issues play a role, but in recent years concerns about spending and taxes have predominated.

Some of the fiercest advocates for spending cuts have drawn public benefits. Many, like Mr. Falk, have family members who rely on the government. They often cite that personal experience as the reason they want to cut government spending.

Paul Krugman devotes his column today to the Sunday Times article and points out the seeming contradiction of residents of states and communities that receive more aid than they contribute being the most aggressive and adamant in their desire to elect representatives dedicated to cutting benefits.  He offers three theories as to why that might be:

…working-class Americans are induced to vote against their own interests by the G.O.P.’s exploitation of social issues. And it’s true that, for example, Americans who regularly attend church are much more likely to vote Republican, at any given level of income, than those who don’t.

Still, as Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman points out, the really striking red-blue voting divide is among the affluent: High-income residents of red states are overwhelmingly Republican; high-income residents of blue states only mildly more Republican than their poorer neighbors. Like Mr. Frank, Mr. Gelman invokes social issues, but in the opposite direction. Affluent voters in the Northeast tend to be social liberals who would benefit from tax cuts but are repelled by things like the G.O.P.’s war on contraception.

Finally, Cornell University’s Suzanne Mettler points out that many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system. She tells us that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they “have not used a government program.”

I agree with much of Krugman’s analysis, but I have a fourth theory. Back to the initial Times article that is the basis for Krugman’s commentary:

Brian Qualley, 49, has a sister who survived a brain tumor but was disabled by its removal. The government pays for her care at an assisted-living facility. Their mother scrapes by on Social Security.

Mr. Qualley said that the government should provide for those who need help, but that too much money was being wasted. Mr. Qualley, who owns a tattoo parlor in Harris, north of North Branch, said some of his customers paid with money from government disability checks.

“They’re getting $300 or $400 tattoos, and they’re wearing nice new Nike shoes that I can’t afford,” he said, looking up from working a complicated design into the left leg of a middle-aged woman. “I guess I shouldn’t say it because it’s my business, but I think a tattoo is a little too extravagant.”

From time to time during my time in Chicago, I have worked with professionals who live among those receiving federal benefits like food stamps and welfare. Yes, I know I live among those receiving federal benefits like Social Security and Medicare, but stay with me on this. Never have I met people more uniformly ticked off about how that aid is used and how it affects their communities. They were in pretty much every case quite adamant about the dangers and perverse incentives of the federal safety net, its unfairness with people getting it that don’t deserve it, and the need to reduce benefits. (The reference to welfare should tip you off about how long ago these days were.) So, like Mr. Qualley, I think that those that see the effects of federal aid on a regular basis and experience it in their own lives understand it in a slightly different way than the rest of us do.* It’s more visceral; they live it on a daily basis.  And as cited throughout the article, residents of Chisago County recognize the untenable position that they and the federal government are in with the generosity of the aid. They know the flow must, at some point slow. They’re doing their part to slow it by electing a budget cutter. Like many an addict, they can’t wean themselves from it so long as it’s offered. Some of them show discomfort for taking it and see what it’s doing to them, but so long as you show up with the score, they’ll take it.

*This was not true of my experience with the safety net. I received thirty-nine weeks of unemployment insurance during my sixteen months without work. It was enough to put groceries on the table, gas in the car, and keep the lights and heat on but not much more. Contrary to the popular argument against unemployment insurance, I was under no illusion that I should hold off on getting a job because of the generosity of the federal largess being directed at me. I was fortunate to have built my own safety net; I could get by without it, though not indefinitely. I wasn’t embarrassed to take it. I don’t believe my receipt of the aid was undeserved. My employer had paid into the system for that purpose and was going to extract everything owed to me from them. I felt that they got much more than they paid for in terms of my efforts versus their “lovely parting gift” to me. In the long run, the aid was a gift, but not a monetary one. It changed the way I think about being poor and nearly poor and those who, haven’t won the Birth Lottery, as I have and as those that have surrounded me for my entire life have. Those people who have to figure out life without the good schools and the caring parents and role models and ambitious friends and the ability to afford college and all those other innumerable advantages that have accrued to me and those around me. The process has made me more empathetic–a word rarely associated with me in the past–and appreciative.

Let’s Get Real on the Deficit

June 22, 2011

New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Leonhardt today properly calls “bull$hit” on the hot air being blown out of Washington and among political activists about the reasons behind the federal budget deficit and right ways to address it.

Eventually, the country will have to confront the deficit we have, rather than the deficit we imagine. The one we imagine is a deficit caused by waste, fraud, abuse, foreign aid, oil industry subsidies and vague out-of-control spending. The one we have is caused by the world’s highest health costs (by far), the world’s largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by 70 — and to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.

To put it in budgetary terms, the deficit we imagine comes largely from discretionary spending. The one we have comes partly from discretionary spending but mostly from everything else: tax rates, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The doctrinaire, devoid of a solid theoretical or historical foundation, abhorrence of any increase in taxes or reduction of any tax deduction or shelter  by Republicans has to change.  Clinton’s increase in taxes in the ’90s didn’t snuff out the economy.  Bush II’s tax cuts didn’t fuel it.

While I don’t think that Simpson-Bowles is perfect or nearly enough, it’s a start.  Leaders (as opposed to merely elected officials or politicians–there’s a difference) need to step forward and make this happen.

And don’t get me started on how insane it is to not have approved an increase in the federal debt ceiling.  Play with fire and get burned.  Making a mistake on that topic and we will be paying the price for generations.

The Forty-Seven Percent Solution

April 14, 2010

If it's a small bag, keep it.

David Leonhardt does a nice job today in the NYTimes writing about the recent dust-up over the mid-2009 study that claims that 47% of Americans owe no federal income taxes.

All the attention being showered on “47 percent” is ultimately a distraction from that reality.

The 47 percent number is not wrong. The stimulus programs of the last two years — the first one signed by President George W. Bush, the second and larger one by President Obama — have increased the number of households that receive enough of a tax credit to wipe out their federal income tax liability.

But the modifiers here — federal and income — are important. Income taxes aren’t the only kind of federal taxes that people pay. There are also payroll taxes and capital gains taxes, among others. And, of course, people pay state and local taxes, too.

Focusing on the statistical middle class — the middle 20 percent of households, as ranked by income — underlines this point. Households in this group made $35,400 to $52,100 in 2006, the last year for which the Congressional Budget Office has released data. That would describe a household with one full-time worker earning about $17 to $25 an hour. Such hourly pay is typical for firefighters, preschool teachers, computer support specialists, farmers, members of the clergy, mail carriers, secretaries and truck drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Taking into account both taxes and tax credits, the average household in this group paid a total income tax rate of just 3 percent. A good number of people, in fact, paid no net income taxes. They are among the alleged free riders.

But the picture starts to change when you look not just at income taxes but at all taxes. This average household would have paid 0.8 percent of its income in corporate taxes (through the stocks it owned), 0.9 percent in gas and other federal excise taxes, and 9.5 percent in payroll taxes. Add these up, and the family’s total federal tax rate was 14.2 percent.

To those people who still find it offensive, I suggest they do two things:  1) Contemplate raising their family on $50,000 in gross income, and 2) Contemplate raising their family on $50,000 in gross income then paying $10,000 of it away in taxes.  Doesn’t leave much.  The system is (supposed to be) designed where those with the ability to pay, pay.

Exxon Mobil paid no US federal income taxes last year and few seem disturbed by that. I am not, but then again, this 47% number doesn’t bother me, either.

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