Courtesy of Occupy Democrats, with over 22,000 likes and 21,000 shares. This meme claims that 95% of the poorest counties and 80% of the poorest states are Republican. Are Republican strongholds responsible for the poorest areas? Let’s take a more comprehensive look.
Measuring the Poor
There are two primary metrics in analyzing wealth, average income per capita and median household income. Each can be useful, but it’s important to distinguish the difference. Per-capita income is an average of all the income divided by population, while median household income gives us the “middle” income in a given area.
Many academics and researchers agree (examples here and here) that median income is the best way to measure poverty. Since income per capita can be skewed by a few wealthy people, it can be unreliable, particularly in areas with high inequality. Imagine a poor small town with one multi-millionaire. The average might increase substantially even though almost everyone is poor. With median income, a few millionaires (or poor “leeches”) won’t skew the results.
This distinction becomes apparent as we examine the data of the poorest counties. In fact, the poorest county per capita (Wheeler County, GA) doesn’t even make the lowest 100 counties in median household income! This is how dramatic the difference can be between metrics, it’s not just semantics. As we’ll see, it’s the difference between the poorest counties being primarily Republican, or mostly Democrat.
Defining Republican and Democrat
For simplicity, we’ll classify each county and state based on their voting statistics in the 2016 presidential election. However, in certain cases, the 2016 election was an outlier, and the county voted previously and consistently the other direction. Thus, it would be unfair to label them Republican or Democrat when they’ve historically voted differently. Those will be noted in the data.
List of 20 Poorest Counties by Median Household Income
- Buffalo, SD: Pop. 1,912 (Democrat)
- Holmes, MI: Pop. 19,198 (Democrat)
- Owsley, KY: Pop. 4,755 (Republican)
- Wilcox, AL: Pop. 11,670 (Democrat)
- McCreary, KY: Pop. 18,306 (Republican)
- McDowell, WV: Pop. 22,113 (Mixed, voted R last 2 elections, D previous 9)
- Bell, KY: Pop. 28,691 (Republican)
- Clay, KY: Pop. 21,730 (Republican)
- East Carroll, LA: Pop. 7,759 (Democrat)
- Sumter, AL: Pop. 13,763 (Democrat)
- Lee, KY: Pop. 7,887 (Republican)
- Allendale, SC: Pop. 10,419 (Democrat)
- Humphreys, MI: Pop. 9,375 (Democrat)
- Wolfe, KY: Pop. 7,355 (Republican)
- Randolph, GA: Pop. 7,719 (Democrat)
- Knox, KY: Pop. 31,883 (Republican)
- Claiborne, MI: Pop. 9,604 (Democrat)
- Quitman, MI: Pop. 8,223 (Democrat)
- Hancock, GA: Pop. 9,429 (Democrat)
- Zavala, TX: Pop. 11,677 (Democrat)
List of 20 Poorest Counties by Income Per Capita
- Wheeler, GA: Pop. 7,421 (Republican)
- Union, FL: Pop. 15,535 (Republican)
- Issaquena, MS: Pop. 1,416 (Democratic)
- Telfair, GA: Pop. 16,500 (Republican)
- Bledsoe, TN: Pop. 12,876 (Republican)
- Ziebach, SD: Pop. 2,801 (Mixed, narrowly voted for Trump, voted decisively for Obama and Kerry)
- Stewart, GA: Pop. 6,058 (Democrat)
- Elliot, KY: Pop. 7,852 (Mixed, voted Trump, voted Democrat every prior election)
- Concho, TX: Pop. 4,087 (Republican)
- Glades, FL: Pop. 12,884 (Republican)
- Long, GA: Pop. 14,464 (Republican)
- Lafayette, FL: Pop. 8,870 (Republican)
- McCreary, KY: Pop. 18,306 (Republican)
- Dooly, GA: Pop. 14,918 (Mixed, voted narrowly for Trump, voted Democrat prior 10 times)
- San Juan, UT: Pop. 14,746 (Republican)
- Oglala Lakota, SD: Pop. 13,586 (Democrat)
- Madison, ID: Pop. 37,536 (Republican)
- Johnson, GA: Pop. 9,980 (Republican)
- DeSoto, FL: Pop. 34,862 (Republican)
- Echols, GA: Pop. 4,034 (Republican)
Analyzing the Data
Far from this meme’s claim of 95% Republican, the poorest counties in the US breakdown as follows:
By Median Household Income: 35% Republican, 60% Democrat and 5% Mixed
By Income Per Capita: 70% Republican, 15% Democrat and 15% Mixed
This means that both Republicans and Democrats can both claim the poorest counties in the US support the other party depending on the statistics they use!
Let’s take a closer look at the poorest counties. Virtually all are in sparsely populated rural areas. Most have less than 20,000 people in the entire county, and many have less than 10,000. To put this in perspective, Los Angeles County has over 10 million people. There are over 250 counties in the US that have populations larger than the top 20 poorest counties combined! This means when someone refers to the “poorest counties in the US”, they are talking about a very small population.
Additionally, most of the poorest counties are found in just a few southern states. Particularly Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Looking closer, these counties are heavily concentrated in historically poor areas like Appalachia (home of the white hillbilly culture who tend to vote Republican) and the Mississippi Delta (majority black who tend to vote Democrat). Linking the poverty of these areas to being affiliated with a certain party or ideology makes little sense. Cultural and economic factors are much more likely to blame.
Are 8 out of the 10 poorest states Republican? Actually, it’s 9 out of 10. Only New Mexico (ranked 44th) could be considered a blue state. Here’s the bottom 10, ranked by median household income (2016 data).
- Mississippi ($41,754)
- West Virginia ($43,385)
- Arkansas ($44,344)
- Louisiana ($45,146)
- Alabama ($46,257)
- Kentucky ($46,659)
- New Mexico ($46,748)
- Tennessee ($48,547)
- Oklahoma ($49,176)
- South Carolina ($49,501)
So why are the poorest states Republican? As with the poorest counties, these states are mostly located in the South, and are heavily rural. This seems to be the biggest correlation for poor areas in the US, not political party. As we saw above, the majority of the poorest counties voted Democrat, so it would be hard to link being poor with Republican. In fact, many of the poorest areas in these “red states” are Democrat strongholds.
Another dent in this meme’s narrative is to look at the Supplemental Poverty Index, which is a better and more sophisticated way of looking at poverty. In the latest data from the Census Bureau, we see that California, a strongly Democratic state, ranks highest in poverty. The states with the highest supplemental poverty rates are:
- California- 20.4% (Democrat)
- Florida- 18.8% (Mixed)
- Louisiana- 18.5% (Republican)
- Arizona- 17.8% (Republican)
- Mississippi- 16.9% (Republican)
- Georgia- 16.1% (Republican)
- New York- 16.0% (Democrat)
- New Mexico- 15.7% (Democrat)
- New Jersey- 15.3% (Democrat)
- Kentucky- 15.0% (Republican)
Based on poverty rates, the tally is essentially equally divided among party.
Do Red States Take More Federal Money?
Yes, according to this analysis. Looking at the chart shown here we can see the tax distribution by state. 7 of the top 10 tax “takers” are red states (considering Florida is mixed). However, 5 of the 10 states on the bottom (the least “moochers”) are also Republican.
Again, the distribution appears to rely more on other factors than political party or ideology. For example, 7 out of 10 “moocher” states are in the South. Most of the top 10 are poor and rural.
On the other hand, heavily Republican Nebraska is a “maker”, while deep blue Hawaii is a “taker”. In terms of voting percentage, Wyoming voted most strongly for Republicans last election. They are also on the opposite end from the “moochers”. Clearly, voting Republican or Democrat isn’t a great indicator.
This meme is mixed on its claims. The poorest counties, using the better method (median household income) are actually majority Democrat, not 95% Republican. While 8 out of the top 10 states aren’t Republican, the meme actually understates its case here. Its assertion that red states receive more federal money is also true. However, as we examine the data, it becomes pretty clear that voting Democrat or Republican is not a good indicator or explanation of why areas remain poor or have high poverty rates. It’s valid to point out the hypocrisy if Republicans pretend like its blue states that are the “moochers”, but there’s little evidence to suggest poverty or “moocher” status is based on political party allegiance in the US.