Dec. 7, 2011 at 12:47 PM ET
By Michael B. Sauter, Charles B. Stockdale and Ashley C. Allen, 24/7 Wall St.
The Occupy movement has brought economic inequality to the headlines. Occupy protesters around the country have labeled themselves the 99 percent, in contrast to the wealthiest 1 percent. While this has captured the public’s attention, differences in wealth have always existed, and states have tried to level the playing field by redistributing money through education spending, unemployment benefits, health care, welfare, and other means.
24/7 Wall St. examined government spending by state in a number of categories to identify those that give the most and least in money and benefits to their residents. Our analysis has found that states that provide the most services and benefits have high income inequality. In order to finance these programs, the states that offer the most to their residents also have among the highest tax burdens in the country. While all income levels benefit from government assistance, the poor and the dispossessed benefit the most, in the form of welfare, Medicare, and unemployment insurance.
Tax burden refers to the average amount a person pays in taxes as a percentage of his or her income. The Tax Foundation calculates each state’s tax burden by taking the total amount paid by the state’s residents in taxes, and dividing it by the total income of the state’s residents. Eight of the ten states that are most generous are among the top fifteen states with the highest tax burdens. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are all included on the list and also fill the top three slots for largest tax burdens in the country.
Income inequality measures how evenly wealth is distributed among residents of an area. Income inequality is high when a few people make a great deal and many make far less. Six of the ten states that are most generous are in the top 15 states for highest rates of income inequality. The three states with the greatest inequality in the country — New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — are among the most generous. Many of the states giving the least, such as Idaho and Indiana, fall on the other end of the spectrum for income inequality.
It also happens that the states that spend the most on their residents have particularly high costs of living. While it may be that state governments simply give more because costs are higher, the difference in spending does reflect the entire situation. In many cases the most generous states also provide benefits for longer periods of time, such as unemployment and cash assistance for needy families. Nine of the ten states on the list are within the top 15 for highest costs of living. and seven of the ten least giving states are within the bottom 15 for cost of living.
24/7 Wall St. used the percent of former weekly wages covered by state unemployment insurance to rank unemployment benefits by state, using data from The National Employment Law Project. The amount each state spends on education per student, including teacher salaries, as well as data on income inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, comes from the Census Bureau. Medicaid spending per recipient is from The Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. Medicare spending per recipient is from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 24/7 ranked the average amount each state employee receives in pension benefits per year using data from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College on defined benefit plans. Data on the average number of months of benefits received and the average monthly amount of cash assistance from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a welfare program that provides cash assistance to American families with dependent children, was obtained from the Administration for Children and Families. Cost of living data is from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.
States doing the most to spread the wealth
California provides a large amount of cash assistance to those in need. Recipients of TANF in the state receive $537 per month — the second largest amount in the country — and for 42.4 months— the seventh most months. California residents have one of the highest tax burdens in the country. The state also has the seventh highest level of income inequality.
As of 2008, Medicaid enrollees in Minnesota received the second largest amount in benefits in the country. However, the state has cut outlays to the program in the 2012-2013 budget, meaning the state’s ranking in this category may soon change. Residents of the state have to pay a very large amount in taxes. The average citizen of Minnesota pays 10.3 percent of their income in state and local taxes, which is the seventh largest amount in the country.
Alaskans have the lowest tax burden in the country, paying just 6.3 percent of their income in state and local taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, “Before the Trans-Alaska pipeline was finished in 1977, taxpayers in Alaska bore the second-highest tax burden in the country. By 1980, with oil tax revenue pouring in, Alaska repealed its personal income tax and started sending out checks instead.” The state also doesn’t levy personal income tax or sales tax. Still, it manages to spend the third largest amount per pupil each year, provide the sixth largest amount in Medicaid per beneficiary, and give the largest amount in monthly TANF assistance in the country.
Connecticut has the highest per capita income in the country. Its residents also pay more than $5,000 a year on average in state and local taxes — the highest amount in the U.S. As a result, residents have the third highest tax burden in the country. In return, Connecticuters receive above average benefits. State employees who receive their pensions through the Connecticut State Employees Retirement System have the fourth highest average pension benefits. Students have the sixth highest amount spent on them. The state also has the fourth highest cost of living, and the second highest rate of income inequality.
Hawaii, on average, covers 54.3 percent of workers’ previous weekly wages through unemployment benefits. This is the highest rate in the country. The state also provides, on average, the greatest number of months of TANF benefits, and the third highest average amount of cash assistance. Part of the reason for this is that Hawaii has — by a substantial margin— the highest cost of living in the country. The state also receives one of the largest amounts of federal funding per capita in the country. This is partly due to defense, but also because of its high rates of health and human services payments.
Pennsylvania ranks high in a number of categories, but is not especially exceptional in any. It spends a large amount on education, health care, public pensions, and welfare. As a result, it has the tenth highest tax burden in the country, with residents spending an average of 10.1 percent of their income in state and local taxes.
4. New York
New York spends more than $18,100 per student on education each year, which is more than any other state in the nation. Approximately $12,500 of this is spent on teacher salaries and benefits alone. The state’s Medicaid payments per beneficiary of $9,057 is the largest in the country, and more than $600 than the state that spends the second most. New York has the absolute highest rate of income inequality in the country. It also has the second largest state and local tax burden, and the third highest cost of living.
3. New Jersey
New Jersey residents have access to exceptional amounts of health care benefits. Medicaid beneficiaries receive the fourth largest amount in the country. And those who receive Medicare benefits, which is solely the fiscal responsibility of the federal government, receive the third largest amount. New Jersey also spends the second largest amount on education on a per student basis. Only 4 percent of New Jersey’s education budget derives from the federal government, with revenues split evenly between state and local governments. Unfortunately, New Jersey residents possess the largest tax burden in the country — nearly twice that of Alaska.
Massachusetts has the third highest rate of income inequality in country. However, the states offers a number of above average benefits to address this issue. The state provides the fifth highest monthly amount in cash assistance for families enrolled in TANF in the country. The state also spends the seventh greatest amount on education, resulting in what many consider to be one of the best K-12 education systems in the country. Additionally, residents covered under the Massachusetts State Employees Retirement System receive the fifth highest amount in average benefits.
1. Rhode Island
Rhode Island performs exceptionally well in all of the “generous” state metrics. It provides Medicaid beneficiaries with the third largest amount in payments. It provides the unemployed with almost 46 percent of their previous weekly wages — the second highest rate. Those receiving cash assistance through TANF, on average, can receive benefits for the second longest period among all states. Of course, taxes must be relatively high to fund these programs. The state has the fifth highest state-local tax burden in the country.
States doing the least to spread the wealth
Texas provides among the lowest average amount in monthly cash assistance to families receiving TANF benefits. It has the tenth lowest amount in Medicaid payments per beneficiary. It also spends the ninth lowest amount on education on a per pupil basis. Residents of the state have one of the lowest state and local tax burdens in the country, paying just 7.9 percent of their income. The state also has the fourth lowest cost of living in the nation.
Florida has one of the lowest per-beneficiary payout rates for Medicaid in the country. Conversely, it has one of the highest rates for Medicare, which aids those aged 65 years or older and is solely funded by the federal government. The state also provides relatively low unemployment benefits and TANF benefits.
The greatest detriment to Indiana’s ranking is its pension system. The average benefits for a public servant enrolled in the Indiana Public Employees' Retirement Fund is $8,837, the lowest amount in the country. Although Indiana, unlike many states, strives to make its full pension payments each year, it keeps payments small. According to the New York Times, “An employee earning $30,000 a year retires after 25 years with an annual pension of less than $10,000.” The state also provides a relatively low amount in average monthly cash assistance for TANF beneficiaries. The cost of living in Indiana is, however, relatively low.
7. South Carolina
South Carolina scores worse than average in every metric of generosity we looked at. The worst of these were Medicaid and cash assistance to the poor. South Carolina paid out just $4,658 per beneficiary last year for Medicaid, the eighth lowest amount in the U.S. Needy families received just $172 on average from TANF, the fourth lowest dollar amount in the country.
Arizona’s state and local tax burden is significantly lower than the national average. It also spends less than the national average in a number of areas. When it comes to education, the state spends the third lowest amount per pupil in the country. On top of this, the Arizona Senate recently cut $200 million from K-12 education. The state also covers the smallest amount of weekly wages for the unemployed. Additionally, the average weekly unemployment benefit is
$213, the fourth lowest amount in the country.
In Alabama, the average Medicaid beneficiary receives just $3,931 each year. This is the second lowest amount in the country. In contrast, New York pays more than double that, or $9,057 per patient. According to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, the relative cost of health care in the state also happens to be the lowest in the country, lessening the need for public assistance in this area. The state also provides just $197 for the average needy family through TANF, the seventh-lowest payout in the U.S.
Oklahoma spends the fourth smallest amount on education per pupil. It also pays the third least amount in employee benefits for those in the education system and the second least amount in teachers’ salaries to the number of students in the state. In addition to this, Oklahoma pays the fifth lowest amount in average monthly cash payments for TANF recipients and the ninth lowest amount in Medicaid benefits for those enrolled in the program. Perhaps not surprising, the state has the second lowest cost of living in the country.
The state of Idaho spends just over $7,000 per pupil in a given year. This is the second lowest rank in the country. Idaho provides below average cash assistance through TANF, and recipients only average eight months of eligibility, by far the shortest period in the U.S. As measured by the Census Bureau’s GINI coefficient, Idaho has the eighth best income equality in the country.
Tennessee has the eleventh lowest per capita income in the country and state residents pay just $1,851 in taxes — the second lowest amount in the U.S. in state and local taxes. This means the state has one of the lowest tax burdens in the country. The state spends relatively little on education, unemployment benefits, TANF welfare benefits, and pension benefits. But Tennessee also has the lowest cost of living in the country.
Arkansas has the second lowest median household income in the country, at just $38,571. Despite this, the state is one of the least generous, especially when it comes to assistance for the poor. The state gives just $147 per TANF recipient, the lowest in the country. And the average poor family receiving cash assistance is only eligible for 11.2 months, the second shortest period in the U.S.