Entitlements and Knox County

This is Knox County Indiana, where I was born, raised and didn’t leave for anything other than a vacation for 19 years. Thinking along the same lines as what I wrote here and here, I thought I’d take a look at the interactive map provided by the New York Times using entitlement data. This area is politically conservative, even though the state Democratic Party is no slouch in municipal elections. All things considered, I haven’t noticed any appreciable difference between sides in my hometown or the county at large. I also remain convinced that both parties remain partitioned at this level primarily for the purposes of grassroots support for the state and national variants as well as upward party mobility. But that’s not what this post is about. Instead, I want to interject some personal narrative and exposition based on how we perceive the magnitude and placement of entitlement transfers.

And it starts with this:

This shows that in Knox County government transfers (what the NYTimes refers to as all “Government payments to individuals in more than 50 benefit programs, from food stamps to Medicare”) represents 26.28 percent of income per capita. I’m not going to lie…I was floored seeing that low of a percentage.

So I took a closer look at the programs that we more commonly associate with low-income spending:

This is the “income support” for Knox County, representing 2.09 percent of income per capita. Included in this is aid to low-income families, food stamps, disability payments and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Again, I was speechless to see such a low number. The colors shown represent percentages, with the lowest as the lightest color you see and the darkest color as the highest. As you can see, in either statistic, Knox County is the middle of the percentage spectrum.

I’ve always had a hard time contextualizing my childhood experience with “poverty,” because, of course, my viewpoint was relative to what I saw around me. Like a lot of kids there were people who were wealthier and poorer than I was, and for that area I suppose I was somewhere in the middle. The one consistent theme growing up, though, was a generally disdain for those “lazy poor people living off the government.” Now this wasn’t an attitude shared by my family, but it came up in so many conversations in school and at work (usually talking about that one person) that I was under the impression that a significant plurality of the county was living off the government. I believe this attitude still exists given the number of times I’ve heard it in my adulthood.

Now most people point to two things in the course of expressing this sentiment (for this I’ll narrow to my hometown, Vincennes, the largest city in the county):

1. The existence of several Section-8 housing complexes.

2. Everyone knows several people who intentionally don’t work, or work less, to qualify for government benefits.

And it is true, there are four public housing sites in town. It’s also true that there are people in town, and in the county for that matter, that try to “game” the system to receive benefits. Yet despite all of that, the programs that people utilize (food stamps, TANF, disability) that receives so much anecdotal contempt represents all of 2.09 percent of all income. That is just so awfully low to justify such a prevailing and recurring view of Knox County, Indiana.

We’ve been through this before – this cultural view of contempt that affects public policy. People in my home county have a unsubstantiated idea (totally aside from normative judgements) of the level of entitlement spending in their own backyard. I can’t help but think that such an ill-informed view of the world around them affects the way they view policy, politics, and the choices they make at the ballot.

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