No sooner did Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney revive the Moocher Myth than his critics jumped in with evidence to challenge it.
The Moocher Myth is this: People who vote Republican are successful, responsible strivers who pay taxes and keep the U.S. government afloat, while people who vote for Democrats are irresponsible moochers living off government programs. In Romney's phrase, they are the 47 percent “who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims.” Reporter Mike Barnicle was criticized for saying something similar after the 2000 presidential election, claiming that the blue states on the map that voted for Al Gore were the “sense of entitlement” states.
But research then and now has pointed out that the states that got the most per capita in federal dollars were more likely to vote for Republicans. What explains this paradox?
Let's start with the numbers.
The Census Bureau keeps track of where every federal dollar is spent, by state and county. The Internal Revenue Service records where federal-tax dollars come from, including income, payroll and excise taxes. Dividing total federal spending by the taxes paid provides a federal spending ratio for a state or county.
Federal budget deficits complicate the calculation because during deficit years all states, counties and people may pay less in taxes than they receive in spending. The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization, excludes budget shortfalls when calculating a state's federal spending ratio.
Every year, about 30 states receive more in federal spending than they pay in taxes, while the other 20 states bankroll the federal government. New Mexico and Mississippi are usually the greatest net beneficiaries of spending, receiving roughly $2 in spending for every dollar paid in taxes. New Jersey and Illinois are the greatest net contributors to the federal government, receiving about 60 cents in spending for every dollar paid in taxes. States in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Pacific Coast generally lose money to the federal government, while Southern and Great Plains states benefit.
If we think of states as voters — and they are in presidential elections due to the Electoral College — then the Moocher Myth is backward. Starting with the 2000 election, the states that have benefited the most from federal spending have voted Republican. Those that pay the most in taxes per dollar received in spending vote Democrat. This paradox occurs even controlling for a state's per-capita income, total population, racial composition, education level and defense spending.
At the county level, the Moocher Myth is more intriguing. The Census Bureau counts federal dollars in five broad categories: retirement and disability payments, salaries and wages, procurement contracts, grants, and other direct payments. In 2004 — the last year the Tax Foundation calculated the tax burden per county — the counties that received the most per person in retirement or grants had higher vote margins for Democrat John Kerry.
But the counties that received the highest per-capita spending in the category “other direct payments” voted for George W. Bush. “Other direct payments” includes Medicaid, food stamps, crop subsidies, housing assistance and many other programs that people generally think of as “welfare.”
It remains a mystery why places that receive the most per person in federal spending, particularly on welfare programs, vote in presidential elections for the party that wants to cut those programs. The most likely suspects are Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. The New Deal and Great Society programs forged by Roosevelt and Johnson sent federal dollars to the South, which was largely Democratic from the 1940s through the 1960s.
In the 1970s, the South switched to Republican presidential candidates but continued to elect members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, who protected the flow of federal dollars to their states.
All of this is made possible by the Constitution. The separation of powers between the president and Congress also separates national interests represented by the president from local interests represented in Congress. Members of Congress from both parties and in all parts of the country have protected and redirected federal funds to their states. Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, and Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, famously used their powerful positions to funnel federal dollars to their constituents back home.
Voters in net beneficiary states have the luxury of voting for presidential candidates who pledge to cut taxes and halt the expansion of government while knowing that their congressional delegations will continue to protect federal spending.
We will know what voters value more only when they face a real choice between a party that promises to cut taxes and lower spending, versus one that pledges to increase taxes and continue spending. Until then, many states and voters can enjoy the benefits of federal spending while opposing any further spending programs. If past elections are a guide, many of those states and voters, moocher class or not, will vote for Mitt Romney.
Dean Lacy is a professor of government at Dartmouth College.