The Rural Counties Most Dependent on Social Security
Sumter County, Florida, is best known as a retiree haven and a center of Republican and Tea Party politics in the state. Sumter County, however, is most notable for the large percentage of people living there who receive a monthly Social Security check.
More than 55 percent of the residents of Sumter are on Social Security, by far the highest percentage in the country. On average, 16.7 percent of the U.S. population receives some kind of Social Security check — retirement benefits, survivor benefits or disability payments.
More than one out of every four dollars of personal income in Sumter County comes from Social Security, according to data from 2009. Again, that is way above the national average — nationally, one in 18 dollars of personal income comes from Social Security checks.
The case of Sumter County — a retirement community that, in 2008, cast 63 percent of its votes for Republican John McCain — shows that Social Security checks are not spread equally across the country.
The map above shows the percentage of total personal income derived from Social Security in each U.S. county. The darker the blue, the larger the percentage of income in the county that comes from Social Security.
On average rural counties and counties with small cities (such as Sumter in Florida) are more dependent on Social Security than are urban counties. In urban counties, 5 percent of personal income comes from Social Security. In rural counties, an average of 9.3 percent of personal income arrives in the form of a Social Security check.
There are wide differences among rural counties, however. You can see some of that in the map. Retirement counties in Florida, Appalachian counties, the Ozarks, northern Michigan and counties in the Hill Country of Texas, for example, have higher proportions of their incomes coming from Social Security than counties in the Dakotas and Wyoming.
Congress is now considering ways to limit government programs, including Social Security. There have been suggestions that the retirement age be raised (beyond 62) or that adjustments be made to Social Security's cost of living adjustment to slow the rate monthly checks increase with inflation.
If those limits are put in place, economists have told The Daily Yonder that the effect of any restriction of Social Security payments will be felt most strongly in rural America.
“Cuts would have a bigger negative impact on rural places, absolutely,” said Middlebury College geographer Peter Nelson said. “They are more dependent on Social Security.”
Even within rural America, however, there are differences. In several rural Michigan counties, one out of five dollars of personal income come from Social Security. In the rural Colorado resort counties of Pitkin and San Miguel, however, only 2 out of every 100 dollars of personal income come from Social Security.
The chart below shows the fifty rural counties with the largest proportion of personal income coming from Social Security payments. Eight of the top ten counties are in Michigan.
Sumter County is classified as a "micropolitan" county by the federal government. It's not rural, but it's not urban either. These semi-rural counties are also more dependent on Social Security than are urban counties.
Again, however, there is a wide variation. Below is a list of the 50 "small city" counties with the largest proportion of personal income deriving from Social Security. While Sumter gets 26 percent of its income from Social Security, a large group of very wealthy ski and resort counties receive a tiny proportion of their income from these benefits.
The relatively wealthy residents of Teton County, Wyoming, for example, take in only 1.3 percent of their total personal income from Social Security. Social Security accounts for less than 3 percent of total personal income in Eagle County, Colorado, Summit County, Colorado, and Campbell County, Wyoming.
Here is the list of the counties with small cities that have the highest proportion of personal income coming from Social Security.
Bill Bishop is co-editor of the Daily Yonder. Dr. Roberto Gallardo is a research associate with the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. This study was made possible with a grant from the National Academy of Social Insurance.