For Conservative Activists: Are The Poorest States Really Republican?

By Mark Hendrickson


6/07/2012 @ 12:04PM |120,461 views

Are the 10 Poorest U.S. States Really Republican?

“Most of the 10 poorest states are Republican” is a quote of CNN’s Jack Cafferty. It appeared in his “Cafferty File” blog last September 22, and was accompanied by the opinion, this is “something the GOP can’t be too comfortable with.” Indeed, in an election year, you can bet that Democrats will try to make hay with those data.

My previous column made the case that Democratic Party policies have induced the impoverishment of America’s poorest cities. Turnabout is fair play. If Republican policies have led to the economic stagnation of entire states, whereas Democrats are only responsible for ruining cities, then the Dems might have the stronger campaign talking point. Let’s examine the 10 poorest states to see if Republicans are to blame for their relative economic standing.

The poorest states, based on per capita income, are, from first to last: Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, and North Carolina. Of these, exactly half—Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, and West Virginia—have Democratic governors and three have Democratic majorities in the lower house of their legislature, so these state governments can hardly be classified as completely Republican. On the other hand, only North Carolina voted for Obama in 2008, so in that sense, these states may be leaning Republican.

A common analytical error is the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy—“after this, therefore because of this.” For example, chronic federal deficits became chronic in the 1960s. What changed in America at that time? Alaska and Hawaii were added to the union in 1959 and 1960, respectively; therefore, the erroneous assertion to follow is that we need only expel those two states from the Union to solve our deficit spending problem. Absurd, right? Similarly, we can’t facilely assume that the lower per capita incomes in the 10 poorest states were caused by Republican policies.

Looking at the list of the 10 poorest states, all except Montana are east of (or border on) the Mississippi River. That means they are older states. Those nine also happen to be concentrated in the South. This is significant: They were all slaveholding states. They focused on producing commodities, whereas the northern states produced more value-added goods, more manufactured goods, more capital-intensive goods. Combined with national policies that conferred economic advantages on the relatively industrialized, higher capitalized North—policies that created some of the friction that led to the Civil War—the South’s economic development lagged.

As is common in societies based on producing raw commodities, the Old South had an elite that owned the land and employed a poorly educated workforce to plant, tend, and harvest the crops. Historically, then, education was of less importance, and therefore emphasized less, in the South than in the North—a trend that contributed ongoing economic advantages to the North.

After the Civil War, Republican carpetbaggers from the North kicked around the defeated South, further widening the economic gap between the two regions. One political consequence was that the Deep South was monolithically Democratic for the next century. Only in the last generation, when the secular counterculture took over the Democratic Party, did many Southerners finally bury the distant past and register as Republicans.

In short, those nine erstwhile slaveholding states have been lagging behind the northern states economically for two centuries. Just because one generation of leaning Republican has not eliminated a disparity that was entrenched for centuries, it is not an indictment of Republicans.

As for Montana, whose people elect Democrats and Republicans to statewide office with almost equal frequency, its economic status has a geographical cause. Montana is remote and its climate is harsh; consequently, it has never attracted enough people to achieve an economic “critical mass” to advance much beyond the commodity-related businesses of farming, ranching, and mining. That is why it has lagged economically—not because of anything Republicans have done.

Another common mistake in economic analysis, seen often, for example, in the (irrational) rationale that liberals use when resisting cuts in marginal tax rates, is to adopt a static rather than dynamic view—to see life and economic conditions in terms of snapshots rather than as a motion picture. In the politically motivated attempt to blame Republicans for the lower incomes in the 10 poorest states, CNN’s Cafferty and Democrats have taken one snapshot—of the census’ income statistics—and combined it with another snapshot—of current political leanings—to create the impression that Republican policies make America poorer.

The more important factor is not the economic ranking of states at a point in time, but the overall trends. An importantarticle by John Merline compared the economic performance of blue states and red states during the presidency of Barack Obama. The trend of economic indicators clearly favors Republican states. Democratic states have experienced lower growth in both jobs and income in the last few years. Home prices have fallen further in blue states, and their unemployment rates are higher. In other words, a dynamic economic analysis of the states casts a far more favorable light on Republican states than static analysis. Since real life is dynamic, not static, Republicans can make the stronger case about which party is best suited to lead the way to greater prosperity.

The most fundamental difference between the data that conservatives prefer—that the 10 poorest cities are longtime Democratic strongholds—and the data that liberals will be more inclined to cite—that the 10 poorest states are predominantly Republican, is thatconservatives can point to actual policies that Democrats implemented that contributed to the impoverishment of the cities, while the liberals cannot point to specific GOP policies that have caused the poorer states to lag behind.

The Democratic case is illusory and circumstantial; the Republican case is solid and substantial. However, in a country where so many people are economically and historically illiterate, combined with the human proclivity whereby “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” (Paul Simon, “The Boxer”), the Democrats may be able to score some points with a hollow argument. The Republicans, though, have the facts on their side.

— Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


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