If Republicans succeed in their multi-front campaign to cut back on food stamps, the burden will fall heaviest on the working-class, rural white voters on whom President Trump has staked the future of their party.
House Republicans on Thursday passed legislation that would require Americans ages 18 through 59 to either work part time or spend 20 hours a week in workforce training to receive food stamps.
On the same day, the White House unveiled a proposal to consolidate the public safety net — including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — under a revamped health department. The program, The Washington Post's Amy Goldstein and Caitlin Dewey write, “has an explicit aim of building standardized requirements that people must work or prepare for jobs to qualify for government help.”
On the surface, these efforts seem like they will affect Democratic voters the most. The highest rates of food-stamp assistance tend to be in the most Democratic areas. But that’s a superficial reading of the numbers.
Yes, the most Democratic-leaning 20 percent of counties tops the rankings in terms of reliance on food stamps. Fourteen percent of all households got SNAP assistance, based on 2012-16 data. But the most Republican-leaning 20 percent runs a close second at 13.5 percent of households receiving assistance. All groups are adjusted for population so that they're not distorted by the large Republican advantage in thousands of low-population counties.
A deeper look at the numbers helps explain why. In the Trump era, the Republican Party has relied heavily on rural voters. And the most rural 20 percent of the population is also the most likely to live in a household that receives food stamps.
The distribution of food stamps isn't uniform across the urban-rural spectrum. It depends on the policies of the states that administer the program, as well as the poverty of residents. But food-stamp use is particularly high in key Trump strongholds, such as rural Appalachia, the Ozarks and much of the rural South.
A similar pattern emerges in the counties with relatively large non-Hispanic white populations, many of which are also rural. The whitest 20 percent of counties is, by a narrower margin, also the most likely to receive food stamps. To be clear, this is only true of the whitest counties, not of white Americans as a whole.
The above trends merge when, instead of looking at race, ethnicity or geography, we look at Trumpiness. Consider, in the chart below, the counties that shifted away from 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and toward Donald Trump.
The huge five-percentage-point gap between the Trumpiest and Romniest counties shows — perhaps even more clearly than the contrasting politicians themselves — that the party now leans heavily on the support of poor, working-class areas. And many people in those areas? They lean heavily on the support of the federal government.