The Washington Post's Ezra Klein said the federal government subsidizes rural life. He was absolutely wrong. But Klein isn't alone in making this assumption.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote earlier this year that the federal government provides “a raft of subsidies (devoted) to sustaining rural living.”
Klein was absolutely wrong. The Economic Research Service (at the Department of Agriculture) tracks federal spending by place. In almost every year of this century, federal spending per person was higher in urban counties than in rural counties.
It’s not even close, really. Rural people are older, so rural communities receive much higher levels of Social Security. Take out Social Security and per capita federal spending in urban counties swamps outlays in rural America. (Read all the accounting here.)
When Klein wrote that “rural living ends up costing a lot more than urban living on a variety of measures,” he was just making it up. But what caused an otherwise good reporter to make such a dumb assumption?
I think it’s because he made what is a common mistake for people who have never lived in a rural community. It goes like this:
Rural equals agriculture. Agriculture gets big federal subsidies. Therefore, the federal government provides a “raft of subsidies” that sustain “rural living.”
The problem with this thinking is that most of rural America and most people who live there have little to do with agriculture. Farms and ranches are important in many rural counties. But not most — not by a long shot.
Maybe the map above will help everyone get a better idea of the role of agriculture in rural America. It shows total farm income per capita in rural counties. The pink counties have farm income that is below the rural average of $3,715 per person. The purple counties have per capita farm income below the national average of $987.
(These figures come from a recent Bureau of Economic Analysis report. Ag income is gross, not net.)
Yes, most of the map is pink/purple because most of rural America is below average when it comes to farm income. Farm income is concentrated, so that 76% of farm income is earned in counties where only 25% of rural people live.
Yes, counties with only 25% of the rural population earn three out of every four dollars made from farm or ranch sales.
Agriculture has been a diminishing part of the rural economy — and fewer people over time are employed farming. In the chart below, you can see that rural America has become a smaller part of the U.S. population, and that the percentage of people who work on farms has become a smaller part of the rural population.
The figures are just as imbalanced when it comes to federal ag subsidies. The map below shows the per capita distribution of federal subsidies across rural America.
Counties in the darkest orange receive per capita federal ag subsidies that are lower than the national average of $40. Lighter orange counties receive per capita subsidies less than the rural average of $170.
Nearly 8 out of ten ag subsidy dollars go to counties containing only 24% of the rural population.
Keep these maps and figures close by. During the last presidential election, the metro press (led by the New York Times and the Brookings Institution) put out the story that the campaigns concentrated too much on rural issues, a consequence of the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
As a result, this story went, federal policies sent too much money to rural America. The Times and Brookings called on candidates to talk (and spend) less about (and on) rural America and to pay more attention to cities.
Klein may have picked up on this train of thought when he wrote his wholly inaccurate column.
The facts are that the federal government spends more on cities (per person) than in rural areas. Farming is concentrated in certain parts of rural America. And federal ag subsidies reach a very small number of rural communities.