Is red the color of poverty?

Monday, January 14, 2013 - 10:36am

by Lakshman Yapa, Department of Geography, Penn State

Even though higher income households vote Republican in all regions of the country, paradoxically, states that vote Republican are overwhelming poor. This is part one of a two-part series exploring issues in electoral gridlock, the geography of poverty, low voter turnout among the young, and public scholarship.

Part 1: The geography of the red/blue binary

Red States/Blue States: A Privileged Binary. In his 2008 election victory speech President Obama announced that there are no “Red States and Blue States but just the United States of America.”  Despite the evocative power of that thought, geography and statistics from the past six presidential elections do not support his hope.  Indeed the rhetoric heard in the Republican primaries transformed “Red States/Blue States” into what the deconstructionist philosopher Derrida would call a privileged binary. 

  • Red States are rich, Blue states are poor;
  • Red States have God-fearing patriots, Blue States have secular humanists;
  • Red States are pro-life, Blue States support Planned Parenthood or, as some bloggers claim, are pro-death;
  • Red States are pro-family; Blue States are pro-LGBT;
  • Red States want to repeal Obamacare, Blue States want to expand healthcare;
  • Red States have “an opportunity society with productive givers,” and Blue States have “an entitlement society with dependent takers.”  

I compiled this list from scanning a large number of blogs on the Internet.  The list of other privileged binaries flowing out of the Red/Blue divide is indeed quite long, and there is an interesting geography to all this.

Identity Politics.  The thought we had on Inauguration Day, January 2009, that we had entered a post-racial era now seems naïve and premature.  During the last four years the Red/Blue binary has been worked over with a heavy dose of political racism that was increasingly inscribed onto the very person of a black President depicted in turn “as a Kenyan, an Indonesian, an African tribal chief, a foreign Muslim” in other words, someone fundamentally ineligible to be our president (Hahn, New York Times, Nov. 10, 2012).  The signs of othering a black president were evident everywhere: the shrill insistence of the birther movement; the remark by Newt Gingrich that Obama was “the best food stamp president in American History”; John Sununu’s remark after the first Presidential debate of 2012 that Obama was lazy; Clint Eastwood’s empty chair at the Republican National Convention, which appeared later in several places across the country as a chair strung up from a tree; and a cottage industry of racist posters, bumper stickers, and tee-shirts (Klein, The Washington Post, Aug. 27, 2012).  

But even more important, the Red/Blue binary formed the backdrop for the deployment of a series of discursive strategies regarding identity politics of race, class, sexuality, and immigration aimed at taking back the country.  There was the emergence of whiteness as an endangered species and the prevalence of class as code for race. (Mendible, 2012,; the employment of debt reduction and other fiscal strategies to roll back the gains of workers, minorities, and women over the last fifty years, and the latest phase of the playing out of a historically much larger narrative that Krugman (End this Depression Now, 2012) referred to as the passage from the “Great Convergence: 1950-1980” to the”Great Divergence: 1980-2012.”  Krugman is referring to the massive transfer of income to the top one percent that began in 1980.  Other than to say the Red/Blue binary matters both discursively and materially I will not explore these issues any further in this short article, but I will show some results from a short GIS exercise linked to the Red States/Blue States binary.

A Matter of Geographic Scale. Republicans are widely perceived as the party of the well-to-do, of homes in moneyed suburbs, of country-club memberships, and indeed data supports the view that higher income households vote Republican in all regions of the country (Gelman, New York Times, Nov. 12, 2012).  However, a different picture of the data emerges at the state level.

(To compare the two maps in Figure 1--click on the thumbnail image 1 at left). 

In 2010 twelve out of the thirteen states in the bottom quartile of median household income were Red States; the exception was New Mexico which had voted Republican only once in the last six presidential elections. It has the largest number of low-income Hispanic households in the nation that are also reliably Democratic.  At the other end of the economic spectrum, eleven out of the thirteen states in the top quartile of median household income were Blue States. The two exceptions were Alaska and Virginia.  Alaska has the fourth highest household median income in the nation, money that comes from its extractive oil economy.  Virginia voted Blue only in the last two presidential elections, reflecting the rapidly changing demographics in the state. Northern Virginia is part of the Washington Metropolitan Area, and contains some of the some of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the US; According to USA Today,“Virginia is no longer a southern state” (Stone, May 22, 2008).  This puzzle is the subject of Andrew Gelman’s book, Red States, Blue States, Rich States, Poor States: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do (2005).

Uneven Development of the Space Economy. The bottom map in Figure 1 shows the states divided into four groups by median household income (2010):

  • low income states below the first quartile,
  • low middle income states between the first quartile and the median,
  • upper middle income states between the median and the third quartile, and
  • states above the third quartile.

The other map in Figure 1 show the number of times each state voted for the Republican candidate for President.

Table 1 summarizes the information from the two maps showing that Red States are overwhelmingly in the lower rungs of the economic ladder despite the popular stereotype of Republicans being the party of the rich.  A series of economic indices I looked at suggest that the regional variation in median household income shown in Figure 1 is rooted in a larger structure of uneven economic development, to use the language of David Harvey (Spaces of Hope, 2000).

(To view Table 1--click on the thumbnail image 2 at left).

The Red States in the low income category have the highest rates of poverty (US Census, 2010), the highest percentage of food stamp users (US Census, 2010), and have the largest number of non-tax paying residents ( (Figure 2).

(To view Figure 2--click on the thumbnail image 3 at left).

They also receive the greatest amount of government benefits (Applebaum and Gebeloff, New York Times, Feb 11, 2012), have the lowest percentage of college graduates (US Census, 2010), have the highest incidence of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disorders (Center for Disease Control, 2010), and have the highest rates for residents with no health insurance (Center for Disease Control, 2010).  By economic growth we refer to the expansion of gross domestic product of a nation or region, and by development we mean the presence of a set of institutions that enable economic growth.

I believe it is accurate to describe the Red States as economically less developed than the Blue States. The low number of tax-paying residents in the Red States points to the fact there is no broad-based employment economy.  When economic activities are grouped into five broad categories--primary (agriculture and mining); secondary (manufacturing); tertiary (services including retail); quaternary (communication and information processing); and government (federal, state, and local)--we find that the most dynamic and fastest growing sector in the last fifty years is the quaternary.  Using Department of Commerce statistics from 2000, when states were ranked by percent of gross domestic product in the quaternary sector, I found that all states below the lowest quartile were Red States, another indication that Red States are the least developed regions in the Union. 

What’s the Matter with Kansas?  In 2004 Thomas Frank, a cultural historian, published a book titled, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How conservatives won the heart of America, where he tried to explain how his home state of Kansas went from the being the center of left-wing Prairie Populism in the 1890s to a state controlled by conservative, pro-business, right-wing evangelical Christians in the 1990s.  He was particularly concerned with the question of why poor people vote against their own economic interests by voting Republican.  

Frank’s answer is that a large number of small farmers, devoted family men and women, and hardened blue-collars workers in Kansas have been duped by a conniving, dishonest, propagandizing, well-financed Republican machine to believe that Democrats are a party of effete, anti-religion, America-bashing east coast Liberals who promote homosexual lifestyles, abortion-on-demand, and welfare dependency.  Frank says a party that gives tax-breaks to the wealthy while gutting programs that help the poor has used cultural wedge issues to persuade poor people to vote against their own economic interests. That in a nut-shell is his argument, and I apologize if my summary is too coarse to capture the nuances of the work of a writer who is very passionate and eloquent in the tradition of the late Molly Ivens, or even Mark Twain.  Frank’s analysis has now become conventional wisdom on the left as seen in a book by Joan Walsh, whose What is the Matter with White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was, looks at how and why working class Irish-Catholics abandoned the Democratic Party.  Nicolas Kristoff of the New York Times declared Frank’s book to be “The best political book of the year.”  Evidence for the propagandizing machinations of the Republican Party is all too evident, but I am less certain of the thesis that poor whites vote against their economic interests because they are gullible dupes.  Actually, even as an immigrant of color, I find that suggestion offensive. 

If economic interest is what should motivate our party of choice, why not apply the same logic to wealthy Democrats who not only vote against their economic interests, but also support that philosophy generously through large campaign contributions?  Obviously there is more at work than economic self-interest. The beliefs that homosexuality is sinful and that abortion is the taking of unborn life were not invented by the Republicans, but are as old as Christianity in the Republic.  A Gallup Poll taken in June 2012 reported that 46 percent of Americans believe that “God created humans in the present form within the last 10,000 years,” a belief that has persisted for decades (  Interestingly, 46 percent of college graduates and 25 percent of postgraduates also believed that.  Surely, the Republicans are only tapping into a mother lode of beliefs that have already been in place, possibly for the last 10,000 years. 

Rather than buying into the being duped trope, I prefer to believe that there is something in that message that deeply resonates with values that people already possess.  Just as much as my own belief in the value of social justice and ecological sanity is what determines how I vote, so-called values voters will vote the way they do because in the end we are all values voters. Speaking to this point the New York Times carried a fascinating article on February 11, 2012 titled, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It.”  The writers (Applebaum and Gebeloff) interviewed several people around Lindstrom, Minnesota, all of them poor and on some kind of government support-- earned income credit, food stamps, school lunch program and Medicaid; they were also Republicans, and some were members of The Tea Party.  

To a person they felt trapped, ambivalent, and angry that they had to depend on government benefits.  One of these people, Ki Gulbranson, was an enterprising businessman, but the economy just beat him down.  Even while he drew on government benefits for himself, for his children, and for his very sick mother, he joined the Tea Party in 2010, and he says, “I don’t feel like I need the government.”  What are we to think of Gulbranson and others like him?  Is he an angry hypocrite who bites the hand that feeds him?  According to the US Census there were over 46.2 million in poverty in 2012, people living in circumstances similar to those of Gulbranson or even worse.  In the end this is not a problem of Red States versus Blue States; both Republicans and Democrats need to address it, instead of mining this misery for political gain.  

It is in fact this article in the New York Times that sparked my interest in writing this article, “Is Red the Color of Poverty?”  Even though much scorn has been heaped on the Tea Party in the left blogosphere, I believe it is a good example of a social movement with strong grass-roots organization.  Personally I feel no sympathy for the positions that Tea Partiers advocate, but there is no denying that it is a successful grass-roots movement with a loyal and passionate membership who have used non-violent peaceful acts of assembly and organization to bend a major political party to its will.  As an organization it might even be seen as an example of non-sovereign power existing within a diffused network of a plurality of resistances (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 1990, p. 96) even though its main objective was to capture state power.  As an exercise in the practice of democracy the Tea Party should be admired, studied, and their organization emulated even though we know that billionaire libertarians financed some of it.  It is also known that Tea Party members exercised their constitutional right to vote in proportions much larger than other demographic groups in society, particularly our youth.

 Part 2: Beyond the red and blue divide 


I wish to thank Raechel Bianchetti of the Department of Geography at Penn State for all her help with the graphics.