In a video posted yesterday, Mitt Romney slammed the people who support President Obama, saying they are most likely "dependent on government." Romney's comments were recorded as he spoke at to an exclusive group of donors at a private meeting. Obama's fans think of themselves as "victims," he said. They believe they are "entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it." He added, "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Many on both left and right have criticized Romney for his lack of empathy and rejection of the social contract. However, it's easy to understand why Romney might view America this way. After all, Republicans supposedly represent those with more money, and Democrats supposedly represent those with less—sometimes much less. It's plausible that Romney's supporters would pick up the tab (through their taxes) for social programs that benefit Obama's supporters. For the same reason, it's plausible that Red states would subsidize Blue states, and Red counties would subsidize Blue counties where the poor people live.
But, although it's plausible, it's completely wrong. When Romney says his job isn't to care about those who depend on government for healthcare, food, and housing, he's talking about his base. Across America, Obama's supporters actually subsidize Romney's supporters.
Blue States Subsidize Red States
Studies show that states that elect Democrats contribute the most in federal taxes relative to what they consume in government services. Conversely, many states that elect Republicans contribute the least in taxes relative to the services they consume. This is true even though many Democratic states contain large, poor, urban populations of color.
Here's the evidence: The 10 "Tax Producing States" listed below, left, contribute the most in tax revenues relative to the services they consume. They usually vote Democratic. The ten "Tax Dependent States" listed below consume the most in government services relative to the taxes they pay. And they usually vote Republican. (Each state's name is shown in blue if voters there lean toward Obama, and red if they lean toward Romney, as per Nate Silver's 538 blog.)
Blue Counties Subsidize Red Counties
The same imbalance prevails within states, at the county level. The Blue counties contribute the most state taxes relative to the services they consume. The Red counties consume the most services relative to the taxes they pay. For example, a recent study documented the pattern in Washington state. King County, the solidly-Democratic county that surrounds Seattle, provides "nearly 42% of the state's tax revenues, yet receives only 25% of the money spend from Washington's general fund." Conversely, five counties that require the most in services relative to the taxes they pay are largely Republican.
California shows a similar pattern. Republican Modoc and Tulare Counties consume the most in taxpayer-funded services from the state on a per-capita basis. Says San Francisco Chronicle writer Kevin Fagan: "The prevailing attitude among the right-wing ranchers and modern hippies who define Modoc County is of fierce self-reliance—but more people here than just about anywhere else depend on welfare checks of some kind to get by." In contrast, famously liberal San Francisco and Marin Counties generate the most tax revenues for the state on a per capita basis.
Why Red States Need Blue State's Tax Dollars
Why do people in Red states and counties resent government spending so passionately even as they need so much of it? The central problem is poverty. Many of the residents of these counties are poor. They are ill-prepared to make a decent living no matter how hard they tug on their own bootstraps. For example, in California's conservative Modoc county only 12 percent of adults over 25 have a bachelor's degree. Nearly 20 percent live below the poverty line. Many Modoc residents can't afford to send their children to college. They need government programs to survive, let alone improve their financial outlook.
Without government support it's hard to see a way to break the cycle of poverty and dependence. At least so far, the formula of small government, limited services, low investment, and low taxes that conservative states have implemented for themselves hasn't helped their economies much. (See my earlier column.)
This situation would be funny if it weren't so tragic. When a tax protester yelled "Keep your goddamn government hands off my Medicare" many scoffed at that one person's ignorance. But most Americans who rail against taxes and the size of government are profoundly unaware that taxes they hate fund the programs they want and need. And they are unaware that the states and counties inhabited by "welfare queens" and "freeloading illegals" are actually sending them the money that keeps them fed, cared for, and educated.
Put It to a Vote
Let's put the question of a tax rates to a national referendum and see what Americans really want. Allow voters in each county to decide whether to keep their state and federal taxes at their current level or to lower them. The catch is this: If you vote to lower your taxes then your county or state can't take out any more money than it puts in. Perhaps this would make everyone happy. Red counties would get the lower taxes and vastly reduced services they want. And people in Blue counties (once they stop trying to give their money to people who don't want to receive it) would keep more of their hard-earned cash, and enjoy vastly better-funded local services. Let's give it a try.