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NY Times The Geography of Government Benefits Map

Submitted by on February 24, 2012 – 9:48 pm 3 Comments |  
GeoCurrents reader Brett Lucas recently brought to my attention a fascinating interactive New York Times map of “The Geography of Government Benefits,” which shows the share of income in each county that derives from government benefits (social security, medicare, medicaid, etc.). Brett also makes some interesting observations about the map. As he notes, “In the Pacific Northwest, the counties with some of the lowest percentages of government payments as defined on the map are counties with universities (i.e. Benton, County, OR; Whitman, County, WA; Latah County, ID; etc).  Kind of interesting, as these are all major land grant research universities.  How much other federal funding are these counties receiving?” (I have outlined these three counties in my reproduction of the map in blue.)

In general, poor counties receive the largest relative benefits, as would be expected. But there are some interesting exceptions, which are visible by comparing these two maps. The northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula is not a wealthy area, but its intake seems out of line with its overall standing.

Bret also wonders, “how this data will play into the presidential election cycle.” I do as well.

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  • I’m not sure about the mysterious Lower Peninsula, but I wonder if agricultural subsidies might also shape some of the color of this map.

  • Independence

    Just guessing, but I don’t think Social Security and Medicare receipts play as a big partisan issue. I’ve never met anyone of any party (or none) who wants their Social Security payments and access to Medicare to end. (Appreciate more slowly to keep the system solvent? Yes, some want or would willingly accept that. End outright? No.) Recall that a good-sized proportion of those payments was withheld from earners’ paychecks (reported on W2 forms) or paid annually or quarterly by independent contractors who were issued 990 forms. That total is augmented in part by what many recipients consider to be accrued interest. To the degree that payments and medical care in retirement total more than contribution-plus-interest (commonly the case), it’s only to that degree that Social Security receipts are benefits in the sense of unearned income.

    Because this map portrays patterns of income, it would not have included federal payments to universities, states, and municipalities, nor tax breaks for corporations, crop subsidies, below-market fees for use of federal land and of water supplied by federally funded dams and aqueducts, or boosts to local economies from the presence of military bases and prisons.

    It’s not unlikely that categories of unearned “income” might get higher appreciation from the poor, who tend to be somewhat likelier to vote for Democrats than Republicans. It’s not unlikely that categories of incidental or overt “special treatment” that yield higher personal benefits for property owners, shareholders and other business owners, and those who are employed by them might yield more votes for Republicans.

    • Thank you for sharing those comments. The issue is clearly more complicated…