Red States Outpace Blue States in Income Growth - Thanks to Food Stamps


Americans love nothing more than a good Red-State-Vs.-Blue-State argument, especially during election time.

So a new story in USA Today, looking at the changes in income, state by state, since the beginning of the Great Recession, of course breaks down the results into “red,” “blue” and “swing” states. It declares that red states have seen incomes grow 4.6 percent since 2007, adjusted for inflation, while blue states have only seen incomes grow 0.5 percent. In swing states? A little more than the blue states, about 1.4 percent.

But here's the kicker: that income growth in those red states? It comes, at least in the South, in large part to government benefits payments, like the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. You know, the ones that Republicans like Newt Gingrich attempt to use as a club to beat Obama and Democrats with. They go mainly to people living under or close to the poverty line, which means that income growth thanks to public benefits is the government making life more bearable for those hit hardest by the recession, not exactly economic growth caused by the “low taxes and business-friendly regulation” that the right-wing ALEC representative the article quotes claims. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “The record-setting SNAP participation levels are consistent with the extraordinarily deep and prolonged nature of the recession and the weak, lagging recovery.”

What does this actually tell us? Despite USA Today's attempts to make this data into another partisan political weapon, not much about the election.  But mainstream political journalists like NBC's Chuck Todd fell for it anyway; Todd asked “Is this a stat Romney can work into his stump or too confusing?”

The answer, of course, is “No,” because it's not really a stat. A closer look at the map shows that the similarities have less to do with “red” and “blue” than with regions, energy production, and already-existing affluence. North Dakota might have had 30 percent income growth, due, as the article notes, to an oil boom, but its residents still make less than those in Connecticut, even if Connecticut's seen incomes drop almost 2 percent. Meanwhile, deep red Idaho also had a 1 percent income drop, and swing state Nevada saw incomes plunge a full 10 percent. Ultra-blue Massachusetts, Maryland, and Vermont all had higher income growth than most of the deep south, and Washington, D.C.'s incomes are up 13 percent.

Not to mention that if anyone were to try and use this information to their advantage, it ought to be Obama; the wealth flowing in to energy states proves that the administration's regulations aren't too onerous for business, while the fact that income growth in poor southern states stems largely from government assistance ought to kill and bury the “food stamp president” slur once and for all. (It won't, of course, because that line's largely about race.)

Statistical income increases or decreases tell us little about who's seeing those increases, as well. For that information, it's worth looking at another chart, this one from Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post. Matthews starts with a Census Bureau map calculating inequality on a state-by-state basis, which quickly puts the lie to any possible red-or-blue breakdown (both New York and Texas are highly unequal, while both Vermont and North Dakota very equal).

But then Matthews calculated where inequality rose and fell across the country in the years since the recession began, and that story is even more depressing. Most of the country saw rises in inequality, reflecting what many of us have been saying for a long time: corporations and the people who run them are doing just fine, but they see no reason to share the “recovery” with the people who work for them. Just a few states saw a decline in inequality—both states like Connecticut that saw incomes fall, and states like North Dakota and Wyoming that saw incomes rise.

Putting all this information together, though, the only thing we really learn is that we still desperately need an economic recovery that decreases inequality, that helps people in a sustainable fashion, and most importantly, that isn't dependent on whether or not a state is likely to vote for one party or the other.  

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