Conservative politicians and voters consistently praise the notion of small government — almost to the point of worship at times — but the data show that red states bemoaning assistance from the federal government tend to receive the most of its allegedly unwanted help.
In 2014, analysts at the personal investment website WalletHub looked at how much states receive back from the federal government compared to what each contributes in federal income tax, and the results fly in the face of the standard conservative argument that it is the Democrats who are moochers.
They compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia on three metrics: 1) federal spending per capita compared with every dollar paid in federal income taxes; 2) the percentage of a state’s annual revenue that comes from federal funding; and 3) the number of federal employees per capita. The third measure received only half the weight of each of the others in the calculation.
What the resulting map shows is that the most “dependent states,” as measured by the composite score, are Mississippi and New Mexico, each of which gets back about $3 in federal spending for every dollar they send to the federal treasury in taxes. Alabama and Louisiana are close behind.
If you look only at the first measure—how much the federal government spends per person in each state compared with the amount its citizens pay in federal income taxes—other states stand out, particularly South Carolina: The Palmetto State receives $7.87 back from Washington for every $1 its citizens pay in federal tax.
But the issue is more than simply certain states receiving more than they pay in: it also allows them to keep their state taxes artificially low.
Part of the explanation for why southern states dominate the “most dependent” category is historical. During the many decades in the 20th century when the South was solidly Democratic, its congressional representatives in both the House and the Senate, enjoying great seniority, came to hold leadership positions on powerful committees, which they used to send federal dollars back to their home states in the form of contracts, projects, installations.
Another part of the explanation is easier to discern. The reddest states on that map at the top—Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, Maine—have exceptionally high poverty rates and thus receive disproportionately large shares of federal dollars. Through a variety of social programs, the federal government disburses hundreds of billions of dollars each year to maintain a “safety net” intended to help the neediest among us. Consider, for example, the percentage of each state’s residents who get “food stamps” through the federal government’s SNAP program.
In the end, it appears clear that states dominated by Republican voters — those most likely to decry the welfare state — are the the most dependent on the very federal dollars they seek to diminish.