SYNOPSIS: If Blue States already subsidize small rural populations in Red States, why is Bush handing out even more to them in this Farm Bill?
Remember how hard New York's elected representatives had to fight to get $20 billion in aid for the stricken city — aid that had already been promised? Well, recently Congress agreed to give farmers $180 billion in subsidies over the next decade. By the way, the population of New York City is about twice as large as America's total farm population.
I've been a stern critic of the Bush administration, but this is one case where Democrats in the Senate were the lead villains. To its credit, the administration initially opposed an increase in farm subsidies, though as in the case of steel protection, it didn't take long before political calculation trumped the administration's alleged principles. But politics aside, maybe the farm bill debacle will help us, finally, to free ourselves from a damaging national myth: that the "heartland," consisting of the central, relatively rural states, is morally superior to the rest of the country.
You've heard the story many times: the denizens of the heartland, we're told, are rugged, self-reliant, committed to family; the inhabitants of the coast are whining yuppies. Indeed, George W. Bush has declared that he visits his stage set — er, ranch — in Crawford to "stay in touch with real Americans." (And what are those of us who live in New Jersey — chopped liver?)
But neither the praise heaped on the heartland nor the denigration of the coasts has any basis in reality.
I've done some statistical comparisons using one popular definition of the heartland: the "red states" that — in an election that pitted both coasts against the middle — voted for Mr. Bush. How do they compare with the "blue states" that voted for Al Gore?
Certainly the heartland has no claim to superiority when it comes to family values. If anything, the red states do a bit worse than the blue states when you look at indicators of individual responsibility and commitment to family. Children in red states are more likely to be born to teenagers or unmarried mothers — in 1999, 33.7 percent of babies in red states were born out of wedlock, versus 32.5 percent in blue states. National divorce statistics are spotty, but per capita there were 60 percent more divorces in Montana than in New Jersey.
And the red states have special trouble with the Sixth Commandment: the murder rate was 7.4 per 100,000 inhabitants in the red states, compared with 6.1 in the blue states, and 4.1 in New Jersey.
But what's really outrageous is the claim that the heartland is self-reliant. That grotesque farm bill, by itself, should put an end to all such assertions; but it only adds to the immense subsidies the heartland already receives from the rest of the country. As a group, red states pay considerably less in taxes than the federal government spends within their borders; blue states pay considerably more. Over all, blue America subsidizes red America to the tune of $90 billion or so each year.
And within the red states, it's the metropolitan areas that pay the taxes, while the rural regions get the subsidies. When you do the numbers for red states without major cities, you find that they look like Montana, which in 1999 received $1.75 in federal spending for every dollar it paid in federal taxes. The numbers for my home state of New Jersey were almost the opposite. Add in the hidden subsidies, like below-cost provision of water for irrigation, nearly free use of federal land for grazing and so on, and it becomes clear that in economic terms America's rural heartland is our version of southern Italy: a region whose inhabitants are largely supported by aid from their more productive compatriots.
There's no mystery about why the heartland gets such special treatment: it's a result of our electoral system, which gives states with small populations — mainly, though not entirely, red states — disproportionate representation in the Senate, and to a lesser extent in the Electoral College. In fact, half the Senate is elected by just 16 percent of the population.
But while this raw political clout is a fact of life, at least we can demand an end to the hypocrisy. The heartland has no special claim to represent the "real America." And the blue states have a right to ask why, at a time when the federal government has plunged back into deficit, when essential domestic programs are under assault, a small minority of heavily subsidized Americans should feel that they are entitled to even more aid.
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.7.02