Americans hate big government — but relied on benefits for 17.6% of personal income in 2009

From the NYT’s Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It:

Ki Gulbranson owns a logo apparel shop, deals in jewelry on the side and referees youth soccer games. He makes about $39,000 a year and wants you to know that he does not need any help from the federal government.

He says that too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means. He supports politicians who promise to cut government spending. In 2010, he printed T-shirts for the Tea Party campaign of a neighbor, Chip Cravaack, who ousted this region’s long-serving Democratic congressman.

Yet this year, as in each of the past three years, Mr. Gulbranson, 57, is counting on a payment of several thousand dollars from the federal government, a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has signed up his three school-age children to eat free breakfast and lunch at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.

I could imagine some people objecting to those specific programs being cited in this way, but the average American near retirement age will get far more in Medicare benefits than he or she paid into the system, and the EITC sometimes is greater than the amount of tax owed.

According to the data in this fascinating interactive map, Americans get about 17.6% (2009 numbers, when some programs were stretched by the recession and incomes had declined) from about 50 federal benefit programs.

In 1999, when the economy was more robust, when there were fewer older people eligible for Social Security and Medicare, and when health care costs were lower, only 12.6% of income came from federal benefits.

Social Security payments increased from 4.8% to 5.6% of total income between 1999 and 2009, while Medicare payments increased from 2.6% to 4.1%. Similar increases in income support benefits and unemployment insurance should be mitigated by an improving economy over the next couple of years, but transfer payments to older Americans will likely continue increasing.

Chatham County, where Savannah is located, is near the national averages, with 17.1% of total income from various government transfer payments. We’re just below the national average for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments, and above the national average for various income support benefits and well above the national average for veterans benefits.

While many would have you believe that inner cities are drains on federal coffers, it’s the rural areas that rely most on federal benefits as a percentage of income. Take a look at this screen capture from the NYT map (with colors darkening as the total income climbs to 20%, 30%, and 40%):

Look at the disproportionate reliance on federal benefits in the rural South and in Appalachia.

The same map but for the whole U.S.:

Income support payments (including EITC, food stamps, and disability payments) only account for 1.9% of income nationwide even in the grim economy of 2009, but many counties have figures over 4%. As you can see in this next map, those counties are heavily concentrated in the Southeast: