The Food Stamp Belt: Race, Politics And Poverty in The South

By Guest Columnist Dec 01, 2009

By Chris Kromm This post originally appeared on Facing South. The New York Times ran an eye-opening story this weekend about the 36 million people in this country who depend on food stamps:

With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

While food stamp use has grown more rapidly in other areas, the South — which came into the recession with a higher number of recipients — still claims a disproportionate share, as you can see in the map above. So who gets food stamps in the South? Recipients are concentrated in two very distinct regions: Appalachia, which is majority white, and the Black Belt, counties with high African-American populations running from Virginia to east Texas. Digging into the Times’ excellent sortable data tables, I found a few items especially interesting: * White Poverty in Appalachia: Images of white poverty in Appalachia still ring true. Of the 100 counties nation-wide with the highest percent of whites on food stamps, over half — 52 — are in just three states: Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. Over 17% of white West Virginians are on food stamps, the highest rate in the country. * Black Poverty in the South … and Beyond: The Times observes that:

Southern states have large black populations and high enrollment rates. More than a third of blacks in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi receive food stamps.

But the food stamp data also shows how black poverty isn’t concentrated in the South the way white poverty is. In my break-down of the Times data, only 17 of the 100 counties nationally with the highest African-American enrollment were in Southern states. * The Politics of Food Stamps: You likely noticed that Southern "red" states known for their conservative politics and anti-government sentiment have some of the highest rates of food stamp enrollment. This may seem like a contradiction, but keep in mind the racial divide. In the Black Belt, the state-wide 2008 presidential vote may have gone to McCain in places like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, but African-Americans in those states overwhelmingly voted for Obama. But the dissonance is clear when you look to Appalachia. These predominantly white counties were the heart of the McCain belt — the handful of places where Republicans did better in 2008 than in 2004. In these counties, the anti-government, slash-the-safety-net ideology politicians pander to is clearly out of sync with how people really live — and how most are willing to accept government help if they need it. This contradictory reality will continue to grow as food stamp enrollment spreads into new areas, like the Georgia suburbs. In 2005, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss (GA) famously proposed slashing the food stamp program by $574 million — a move that would have knocked 300,000 people off the rolls (the measure failed). It’s hard to imagine Chambliss making such a proposal today: As the Times notes, food stamp enrollment has doubled in three wealthy suburbs around Atlanta since 2007. The fact that food stamps were on the chopping block for politicians like Chambliss in 2005, before white suburbanites were forced to turn to such programs in large numbers when the 2008 recession struck, and not today offers a window to how much policy is still shaped by the politics of race. Which raises a larger question for progressives: How do you convince whites in red states, who evidently will put aside ideology and use programs like food stamps if they think it’s best for their families, to similarly embrace other safety net and government programs — in other words, a progressive agenda — that benefits poor and middle class families? Chris Kromm is the executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and the publisher of Southern Exposure.