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Romney’s Most Radical Proposal

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to give the states a lot more control over the size and shape of the social welfare state. How would states with different political profiles react? And what would it mean for the people who live in those places? In an article from The New Republic’s print edition, I try to answer those questions by figuring out how two groups of states—the red and the blue—use the flexibility they already have. But doing so turns out to be a lot trickier than you might imagine.

Consider the two states that feature prominently in my article, Massachusetts and Texas. Upon immediate inspection, the safety net in Texas certainly looks a lot weaker than the safety net in Massachusetts. Fewer people in Texans are eligible for most of the major safety net programs. And the assistance the Texans programs provide tends to be more meager.

But what exactly do those figures tell us? Texas has more poor people, after all. It’s also a less expensive place to live. How do we adjust for that? And is what true in Texas and Massachusetts true in the rest of red and blue America? Many of us have assumed so. Ed Kilgore wrote about this phenomenon for the Washington Monthly a few months ago, calling it the “Mississippi model.” But do the statistics back up that description?

To get some perspective, I turned to Marcia Meyers of the University of Washington and Sarah Bruch of the University of Iowa. For more than a decade, they’ve been studying variation in government safety net programs across the states. They’ve found that one of the best way to capture the differences is to look simultaneously at the inclusiveness—that is, the share of those in need who are assisted—and generosity—that is, what level of benefits people receive. With the data set they’ve constructed, they can break down the level of support and the likelihood of receiving support by specific public program. They can look, for example, at Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), which is the program for cash assistance or welfare, or subsidies for childcare. They can also adjust for cost of living differences across states, to reflect the fact that food and housing in New York costs more than it does Louisiana. "To understand how safety net provisions are experienced by families, it is critical to examine not only the average benefit received,” Bruch says, “but also the likelihood of receipt across multiple programs."

At the request of TNR, Meyers and Bruch compared red states to blue states, using results of the last three presidential elections as a rough proxy for political leanings. We asked them to define red states as those that voted for the Republican candidate all three times—in other words, Bush, Bush, McCain. We ahd them define the blue states as ones that voted Gore, Kerry, Obama. We told them to disregard states that didn’t vote the same way in all three contests, effectively taking “purple” states out of the comparison. They also excluded Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming because the data in those three is so atypical, due to factors unique to those states. (Alaska, for example, has a guaranteed minimum income, financed by payments from the state’s huge oil extractions.)

Meyers and Bruch examined the proportion of the needy population states were serving in each program by calculating the number of people receiving services and comparing that to the number in need—for example, the number of families receiving TANF compared to the number of poor families; and the number of individuals receiving unemployment insurance relative to the number of officially unemployed. For TANF, unemployment insurance, child-care subsidies, and health insurance, the blue states were more inclusive—enrolling a larger proportion of the population in need. 

To measure “generosity,” Meyers and Bruch calculated the average benefit received by participants in each program and adjusted for state cost-of-living differences. The results were virtually identical. Blues states were more generous with TANF, unemployment insurance, and child care subsidies. Only when it came to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are the red states relatively more generous—and that, Meyers pointed out, is because the federal formula for SNAP deliberately offsets the effect of other assistance programs. “The US does not have a single safety net for the poor,” Meyers said. “It has fifty different safety nets and the political leanings of the state are a good predictor of how much ‘safety’ these programs provide.”

Meyers and Bruch caution that their calculation cannot fully capture how supportive states may be of their needy residents. But their results are consistent with the data that’s available elsewhere. In April, Curtis Skinner, director of family economic security at the National Center for Child Poverty, wrote a report called “Protecting the Safety Net in Tough Times.” As part of his research, he compiled a state-by-state tally of “safety net spending”—a category that included major, means-tested programs like Medicaid and TANF, as well as smaller programs for foster care, homeless shelters, and so on. Then he compared what each state spent, as a percentage of its budget, to the national average—and adjusted it all for the poverty rate in each state. The results were striking. The ten “highest expenditure” states were all blue states and eight of the ten “lowest expenditure states” were red. “It’s an imperfect measure,” Skinner says, “but it gives you a sense of which states prioritize their safety nets.” 

Does this mean, definitively, that red states care less about their neediest residents? No, in part because that’s also a question of philosophy and policy efficacy—something I plan to take up, separately, in the next few days. But here's something to remember: The whole point of federal programs like SNAP and the Affordable Care Act is to establish a national standard for the safety net—to make sure all Americans have some level of economic security, regardless of where they live. Handing the former over to the states and repealing the latter would undermine that national standard, allowing the disparities that exist today to become even bigger.

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