Friday, July 4, 2014

Why Does the South (and the Sun Belt) Remain So Poor?

The most obvious takeaway from this map should be that poverty is enduring. Once it gets rolling, it's hard to curtail. Poverty begets poverty, generation to generation. To change direction takes a powerful effort of will and determination. To remain mired in poverty can be and is exacerbated by wrong-headed state and local government policies. And, it must said, choices made thirty, fifty, a hundred, and even a hundred fifty years ago matter.

  1. The Old South has long had a strong rural component, as well as a high African-American population, which suffers the highest rate of poverty in rural areas at 34%. Remember, though, that whites make up 63% of rural poverty, largely in the South. 
  2. Texas has the highest outright number of people living in poverty at 730,000. Oklahoma by all accounts is an especially backward state, especially bad for women. The state has long been among those with the highest poverty rates.
  3. The rest of the Sun Belt, Arizona and New Mexico, have their poverty numbers skewed by their high Native American populations, which suffer poverty at double the national average. Arizona, however, was also hit hard by the Great Recession, with all of its counties ending up with 25% of their populations in poverty areas, with middle-class jobs being replaced with minimum-wage jobs. In New Mexico, Hispanics and Native Americans make up 57% of the population, with both groups greatly exceeding the national average for poverty.
  4. This particular measure, people living in poverty areas, is different from those living in poverty, but both statistics generally track each other. However, the idea of measuring poverty by area is an important distinction, in that those not below the poverty level but living in high poverty areas still suffer the lack of employment opportunity and low quality of life that is endemic to such areas.
Of course, I stress from a policy standpoint that these Southern and Sun Belt states, largely run by Republicans, are ill-served by their political overseers. Since the voters of these states consistently vote Republican, especially in state and local elections, they get the government they want. But these state and local governments tend to enact policies against the self-interests of their own residents.

A current example is the general trend in the South and Sun Belt to refuse to take federal money to expand Medicaid to help the poor get health care. (Exceptions: Republican governors in Arizona and New Mexico went with the Medicaid expansion; Arkansas, with a Democratic governor, requested and got a waiver to receive Medicaid money that will be spent on private insurance for the poor.)

What motivates the voters to aid and abet those who consistently ill-serve their constituents is a conundrum. Partly, it's ignorance. Partly, it's bamboozlement. And partly, it's a misbegotten notion that if you vote for lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, a smaller safety net, and lower government spending, things will get better for you even if you're working class, middle class, high-school or college graduate.

The map above paints a picture that illustrates starkly the failure of the vision and policies of the Sun Belt and Southern states. When will they get wise?

Note. Voters don't always know why they vote the way they do, and how they make their decisions can be incredibly random. Read this Chris Hayes article from way back in 2004. It demonstrates better than anything I've read how the low-information, undecided voter operates. It's almost tragic, but it explains a lot.

Savannah, Georgia, voters. Which party do you think they favor and why?

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