It is no secret that rural America has suffered a significant hollowing out over the past few decades, as technologies advanced, industries began to shutter and economic gains landed squarely on the urban coasts.
But somewhat surprisingly, as these areas watched their economic opportunities deteriorate and increasingly came to depend on the federal government for assistance in meeting their basic needs, voters shifted away from the Democratic Party and toward Republicans — the political force that would see their government assistance whittled away.
Research by Dean Lacy at Dartmouth College on the presidential elections in 2004, 2008 and 2012 found that states receiving more federal spending for every tax dollar they contributed were more likely to go Republican.
The phenomenon produced a 2004 best seller, Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” It argued that Republicans drew working-class voters to their platform against taxes and spending not with economic arguments, but by appealing to their conservative cultural preferences — against gay rights, abortion rights, affirmative action and gun control.
The contradiction has only become more pronounced over time. As Americans have grown more reliant on federal programs over the last 50 years, they have increasingly embraced the Republican Party, a trend put in stark relief by President Trump’s 2016 victory. Of the 10 states in which government transfers account for the largest share of income, seven voted for Mr. Trump. Speaking to the economic and social anxieties of blue-collar white voters over immigration, trade and demographic change, Mr. Trump has championed tax cuts for the well-to-do paired with benefit cuts for the struggling voters in his base.
Several factors are involved in this paradox, but perhaps the most significant involve a fundamental mistrust of the federal government — rural voters feel that Washington “does not understand their plight or have their interests in mind” — combined with a deep seated resentment over the loss of industry, particularly coal mining, that has led them to need government assistance in the first place.
“People in [Harlan County, Kentucky] have been on the front lines of the war on poverty for 50-plus years and can see its actual effects,” said Preston Jones, the 31-year-old assistant director at the Pine Mountain Settlement School, over the mountain from Harlan. “It is degrading.”
Mr. Jones, a Republican who not long ago was a Democrat, speaks from a deep well of grievance over the fact that generations of Harlan residents have had to turn to the government for sustenance. That sentiment mixes in with a vague but powerful resentment across the county toward a political system that people here blame for allowing, encouraging even, the decline of coal, its economic backbone.
Harlan County is the nation’s fifth most dependent on federal programs, according to the government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. In 2016 some 54 percent of the income of the county’s roughly 26,000 residents came from programs like Social Security and Medicaid, food stamps — formally known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — and the earned-income tax credit. That is up from 28 percent in 1990.
But for counties like Harlan, a major economic shift seems almost entirely out of reach, especially without the resuscitation of the coal industry:
Harlan has few answers to its economic tribulations: few roads linking it to the world’s markets, few good broadband links, few college graduates, few investors willing to risk their money there. “Most of the kids from here who have a chance to go to university never come back,” said Colby Kirk, executive director at One Harlan County, a nonprofit economic development group serving the area.
Therein lies a monumental obstacle to transforming the politics of America’s safety net. As small towns lag behind prosperous urban centers along the coasts, as rural communities shed businesses and jobs, and as their residents turn to welfare as a last line of sustenance, the more they will resent Washington’s inability, or unwillingness, to stem the decline.