Who Gets the Most Government Benefits: Urban Democrats or Rural Republicans?

Today’s Republican Party, fueled by the Tea Party movement’s right-wing populism, rails against government benefits and those who receive them. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, warns that Social Security and Medicare will turn us into “a bunch of people sitting on a couch, waiting for their next government check.” But who really receives the bulk of government benefits: urban districts represented by Democrats or rural districts represented by Republicans?

Using the New York Times’ map of the county-level distribution of government benefits, I’ve compared Republican and Democratic districts in two states. Here is California’s 9th District (including the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, represented in the House by Democrat Barbara Lee) compared with the 19th District (including the largely rural areas of Stanislaus, Fresno, and Madera counties, represented in the House by Republican Jeff Denham):

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We find a similar story in Minnesota’s 5th District (including the city of Minneapolis, represented in the House by Democrat Keith Ellison) and the 6th District (including the rural counties of Benton, Stearns, Sherburne, Wright, Anoka, and Washington, represented in the House by Republican Michelle Bachman):

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This is, of course, a small and unrepresentative sample – but more comprehensive studies (see, for example, Gray Richardson’s work on this topic or the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study) have shown that the pattern holds: the regions of the United States most inflamed by right-wing, anti-government populism benefit disproportionately from government programs and income transfers. To put it another way, Cadillac driving welfare queens are easily outnumbered by pickup truck driving welfare cowboys.

Why, then, do voters who depend on government benefits support candidates who promise to do away with them? There is an obvious appeal to thinking of oneself as an independent, “rugged individual.” It is an ideological fantasy image with deep connections not only to American frontier culture, but to the more modern celebration of the business entrepreneur as cultural hero. The business-owning elite has a clear material interest in eliminating government income transfers such as unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare: doing so would not only reduce their tax burden, it would put downward pressure on the wages they pay their employees. But many of those same employees are ideologically invested in the fantasy image of themselves as the sort of rugged individuals who have no need for government income transfers. The power of that ideological fantasy is striking: the parents who send their children to public schools are the voters who choose to lay off teachers rather than pay taxes; the workers who are barely able to afford private insurance are the voters who hate and fear a “government takeover” of health care.

It is difficult, though, to imagine a way through this contradiction without a political movement willing to craft for itself an appealing ideological image that is not simply another version of anti-government individualism. Freedom from the law, from government, is one type of freedom. But there is also freedom to go to school, freedom to go to the doctor, freedom to a secure job and a decent wage, freedom to a safe and comfortable home. Who is brave enough to admit that government benefits make us free?

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