Who Gets the Most Government Transfers in PA?

Commenter John Jay alerts us to this neat interactive map of transfer payments in today’s NYT:

Interesting article today in the N.Y.Times about the geographic distribution of government benefits as a percentage of personal income. I think its interesting to note that the major cities all are largely at the lowest rate of government spending while large swaths of rural America suck up a large proportions of their income from the government.

Indeed. While urban areas are definitely benefitting a great deal from the dread “income support” category (just 1.9% of the 17.6% of personal income that goes to transfers, but 100% of total spending in the minds of Republicans), look how much redder the poor rural areas of the South are. These are the Republican base voters who tell pollsters they are angry about handouts to the undeserving, but look how much they’re benefitting from these transfers.

I pulled the PA maps for a few of the different transfer programs. What really jumps out is how much the rural areas of the state are benefitting from unemployment insurance .

Here’s total transfers:


Unemployment insurance:



Income support:


  1. These are interesting maps–but they really don’t reveal much that is unexpected–many of these counties are quite small and have been declining for years, so one would expect that more economic aid would flow there in bad times. Since many of the bigger cities have more wealth, it isn’t surprising that this residual wealth would form a buffer for bad times as well.

    Nor is it particularly surprising that farm transfers flow to farms.

    The real problem is ignored by these charts–huge implicit or explicit federal transfers flow to cities in the form of block (or other) grants to support mass transportation, education, anti-crime or anti-terrorism efforts, and other urban aid packages–much of which is manifested in terms of employment or higher salaries. This, coupled with the (in my view, unfortunate) strength of urban public sector unions creates a much wealthier core of employees who stay while many private sector folks leave.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      True, but mass transit is a much much smaller percentage of federal transportation spending than highways and auto-oriented infrastructure. Especially in the new House transportation bill, cities get badly short-changed.

      As for the other items, we should always be looking to spend money more efficiently, and I agree that public sector unions sometimes stand in the way of that. We need to constantly be trying to figure out better, more cost-effective ways to deliver public services. But quality public services are worth paying for, and if cities have a greater need for some of those services, then they should get more federal money for them. Cities are the engines of our economy, and federal dollars are well-spent on making them run more effectively. The same is not true of low-density exurban regions. It does not substantially matter for our macroeconomy if services decline in these places and people abandon them for larger metros.

  2. This only runs to 2009, not sure that it’s still valid – how does it change given the Marcellus Shale jobs and tax revenue now flowing into the areas that were most depressed?

  3. @ John. Here is a 2011 article that shows what has been true for a long time. Federal Dollars are taken from the blue states and given to the red states. Urbanism creates wealth in this country and it is redirected toward the rural areas. It bolsters what Jon has been saying all along–if you care about economic progress and efficiency, you should care about increasing population density. Dare I say it also sort of blows a huge hole in the conservative “small-government” rhetoric.


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