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Food-Stamp Growth May Be Behind the Midwest's Flip to Trump

Tags U.S. HistoryPolitical Theory


In an earlier post we looked at nationwide growth in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as "food stamps." 

We found that, thanks to many years of accelerated growth in the program under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, 1 in 7 Americans now participate in the food stamp program. 

There are, however, very large differences from state to state in how much the food stamp program has expanded. If we look at growth in the program from the year 2000 to 2015, we find growth varying from 641 percent growth in Nevada, to 54 percent growth in Wyoming:

Regionally, the areas of the country with the most growth are the South and West:

We can't draw an easy conclusions from this map, however, since food stamp usage can often increase with population growth. That is, it is probably not a coincidence that many of the states with the the most growth in food state usage also happens to be states with some of the highest rates of population growth1:

There are some states, however, where there was very weak population growth during this time period, but food stamp usage increased considerable. In these areas, we are led to conclude that the economy worsened. For example, in Nevada during the 2000-2015 period, the population increased 44 percent, but food stamp usage increased 641 percent. In other words, food stamp usage increased 14 times more than population. By contrast, in North Dakota, food-stamp usage increased by less than five times as much as population. 

As explored in this article, median income growth has varied considerably from state to state. In many cases, the states most heavily impacted by declining median incomes were states in the Great Lakes region, including Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. 

[RELATED: "Why Some 'Flyover States' Switched to Trump."]

If we look at food stamp growth compared to population growth, we get the following scatter graph: 

From 2000-2015, all states experienced at least some population growth, except Michigan. Not surprisingly, Nevada, which experienced the highest rate of population growth, also experienced the highest rate of food stamp growth. 

However, Nevada's growth in food stamps was much higher than we'd expect, given the food-stamp growth rates in other states. 

We can get a sense of whether or not food-stamp growth was typical or atypical if we insert a trend line.2 Given the population growth for each state, those states that fall above the trend line experienced a larger-than-expected growth in food stamps, while those states below the trend line experienced less growth in food stamps that would be expected. 

The reasons for a state having an especially large growth rate in food stamps can include any number of things. However, many of the states that were found to have dropping median incomes over this period also show up as having higher-than-expected growth in food stamps. This is especially noticeable with Wisconsin and Nevada. Also included in this group are Florida and Michigan, while Pennsylvania and Ohio are both slightly above the trend line. 

And, it may also not be a coincidence that Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio were all states that flipped in the electoral college from Obama to Trump in the 2016 election. Indeed, as Yahoo News reported today, black voters in Milwaukee, many of whom are suffering economically, may have been an important factor in Hillary Clinton's defeat in Wisconsin. 

By itself, food stamp usage predicts nothing in terms of elections, of course, since ideology, demographics, and other factors matter as well. Nevertheless, we do see here additional information that lends itself to the idea that the so-called "flyover states" continue to be overlooked in terms of national economic analysis. 

While the national economic news may continue to show growth and relatively low unemployment numbers, there continues to be many areas of the United States where economic growth and income growth are behaving contrary to the trends found in the nation at large. 

  • 1. Population growth data comes from the 2000 Census and the 2015 totals come from statewide estimates: https://www.census.gov/popest/data/state/totals/2015/
  • 2. For those who are interested: the equation for the trend line is: y = 5.3281x + 130.47 and R² = 0.2415

Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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