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updated 8/5/2009 5:44:37 PM ET 2009-08-05T21:44:37

Since the economic stimulus bill passed nearly six months ago, the Obama administration has repeatedly pledged that the money would reach middle America, seeping into the communities hardest hit by the recession.

But analysis of the most comprehensive list of stimulus spending to date found no relationship between where the money is going and unemployment and poverty.

Stimulus spending is literally all over the map, according to ProPublica’s analysis, which examined nearly all the contracts, grants and loans the government has reported awarding. Some battered counties are hauling in large amounts, while others that are just as hard hit have received little.

Take Trigg County, Ky., where unemployment was 15.8 percent in June after the auto industry crisis rippled among suppliers. The stimulus has chipped in $1 million toward a biofuels facility and $30 million for a road project. According to the data, the county has been awarded $2,419 per resident.

But LaGrange County, Ind., hasn’t fared so well. Despite having the identical unemployment rate, it has received only $33 a person. The community is still trying to recover after recreational vehicle plants shuttered last fall. Yet the stimulus has provided little more than the education and rural housing money that every county is scheduled to receive.

For months now, Democrats and Republicans have debated whether the stimulus is trickling down to communities that need it most. Much of the available evidence has been anecdotal, however, or based on studies that examined only transportation spending or a smaller list of projects.

The debate accelerated Wednesday as President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited Elkhart County, Ind., and Detroit for a progress report on the economy that will again highlight the stimulus. What the available data show is that spending is uneven and sometimes runs contrary to measures of need.

Elizabeth Oxhorn, the White House stimulus spokeswoman, said much of the money thus far has moved through existing grant formulas that don’t take into account regional economic swings. But as some newer stimulus programs kick in — such as economic development grants and money to hire police officers — there will be more discretion in where to send dollars, she said.

“Where we do have opportunities to target assistance and programs that are meant to help hard-hit areas, we have done that, particularly in the hard-hit auto communities,” Oxhorn said.

First look at county-level spending
Overall, the stimulus program will pump $787 billion into the economy, including tax cuts.

To assess what has happened so far, ProPublica combined all the data on the federal stimulus Web site, Recovery.gov, with reports from other government sources into a list totaling $120 billion worth of stimulus spending. Of that, ProPublica examined $55 billion that could be traced to the county level.

Major Market Indices

Getting a complete accounting of the stimulus is nearly impossible because some of its largest elements — tax cuts for individuals, increases in Medicaid and unemployment — aren’t being tracked to the local level or have yet to be distributed by the states.

While those programs clearly benefit individuals hurt by the recession, they aren’t intended to create or sustain many jobs, as with dollars aimed at infrastructure or schools. The 7 percent of overall stimulus funding in ProPublica’s analysis is the broadest, most complete snapshot of spending to date.

The largest categories are highway projects, Pell Grants for low-income college students and funding to school districts for disadvantaged students. The data also include airport grants, small business loans, housing assistance, nuclear cleanup and military construction contracts.

ProPublica tested the relationship between spending per person and several socioeconomic and demographic factors across more than 3,100 counties and equivalent areas, such as Louisiana parishes, to see if there was a statistically significant pattern in the way money has been allocated.

Nationwide, the results showed no significant relationship across counties when spending was compared against unemployment, poverty, race and income. Looking within state boundaries, spending did have a relationship to unemployment in a few cases — but not always in the same direction.

In New Jersey, for example, counties with high unemployment were more likely to get more stimulus money per person. The opposite proved true in Michigan, which has the nation’s highest jobless rate at 15.2 percent. To view a searchable list of county stimulus projects and demographics, click here.

The biggest winner so far — at nearly $12,000 per resident — is Thomas County, an area of 583 people in the Nebraska Sandhills. Unemployment there is 4.8 percent, about half the national rate.

Judy Taylor, chairwoman of the Village Board in Thedford, said the majority of residents consider the main stimulus project, a $7 million viaduct over the railroad tracks, a waste of money.

“Out here, there seems to be plenty of work for people,” said Janice Hodges, whose family owns a gas station nearby. “It probably could have been better used somewhere else.”

Overall, the counties faring the best in the stimulus program are sparse communities with a giant road project — such as Brooks County, Texas, or Hocking County, Ohio — as one expensive project to a county with few people can skew per-capita figures.

Other counties doing well are home to Cold War weapons plants. The stimulus includes $6 billion to clean up and dispose of waste in 12 states, and those were among the first contracts awarded.

Image: Hanford Nuclear Reservation
U.s. Department Of Energy  /  DoD
Hanford's disposal facility for mixed and low-level radioactive waste, the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, will be expanded using Recovery Act funds.
Thanks to the massive cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Benton County, Wash., has received more than $1.5 billion — second only to Los Angeles County’s $2 billion in total funding so far. Benton County’s per capita spending: $9,300.

In metro areas, per-capita spending varies. LA County’s funding equates to $215 per person. New York County, which covers Manhattan, is receiving $610; its neighbor, the Bronx, is getting $185. Palm Beach County, Fla., is receiving $57 per person, and Wayne County, Mich., epicenter of the auto industry meltdown, has received $183 per resident — about the national average for spending that could be tracked to the county level.

Some well-off counties are benefiting greatly.

Summit County, Utah, home to Park City and several upscale ski resorts, is one of the wealthiest counties in the country with a median household income of $83,000. Under the stimulus so far, it’s received $659 per person.

The money includes a $15 million interstate paving project, a $5 million bridge replacement, $1 million for sewers and sidewalks on Main Street in Coalville, and a $570,000 small-business loan to a Park City oral surgeon.

John Hanrahan, chairman of the Summit County Council, said the highway and bridge projects are in the rural part of the county and are mainly used by long-haul truckers rather than residents.

“It doesn’t necessarily help a farmer a lot for hay or gas,” he said. “It doesn’t affect the ski industry.  We still have a significant portion of the population who are struggling with this recession.”

Hanrahan’s point underscores one of the basic uncertainties when determining who benefits from stimulus dollars. Money spent on a project doesn’t necessarily stay in the community. Construction workers often drive through several counties to job sites.

“People will live in one area and work in another,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com. “Some county in a region could be getting more money, but it could have a beneficial impact on other counties in the region.”

When Obama launched the stimulus package in February, he visited Elkhart, a city that had seen its jobless rate skyrocket from a 5.8 percent in October 2007 to 20.8 percent this March.

The next day, he visited Fort Myers, Fla., which had been pummeled by the foreclosure crisis. Since then, administration officials have repeatedly visited auto industry towns to promise help.

Trigg County is one struggling area that has seen a flood of stimulus money. The county, on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, northwest of Nashville, has about 13,000 residents but received $32.5 million.

The county’s largest manufacturer, Johnson Controls, made car seat frames until it closed in March, leaving 560 people out of work. But right on the heels of that shutdown came $30 million in federal money for an ongoing project to widen U.S. Highway 68.

That stimulus money freed state funds already pledged to the $55 million expansion, protecting the contractor’s current workforce. State officials said it might have stalled without the stimulus.

The U.S. Forest Service awarded $2 million in contracts to clean up the Land Between the Lakes recreation area, which had been devastated by an ice storm. The agency also gave the county a grant for a facility that will convert wood to fuel to power a local hospital.

“When you tally it up and see the dollars that will come into our area through the stimulus, it is working,” said Stan Humphries, Trigg County judge-executive. “It doesn’t move as fast as we would like or reach as many families as we would hope for. But we feel that we are getting our share of the funds.”

Big pots of money hard to track
Edmund Phelps, a Nobel laureate who is director of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society, said it’s no surprise that spending so far doesn’t relate to characteristics like employment or poverty. To get money out quickly, the government relied on funding formulas that aren’t designed for an economic downturn. “It’s kaleidoscopic,” he said of the stimulus. “And it was all done very quickly.”

Some of the largest pots of money — tax cuts, food stamps and Medicaid assistance — go to more than 100 million individuals, and government auditors are struggling to estimate the local impact.

“Can you send a man to Jupiter? In theory you can,” said J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration. “We could in theory track every dollar, but you have to consider the expense and the time it would take to do that.”

For other types of spending programs — such as the $54 billion to stabilize state budgets and help local schools, or $6 billion to build water and sewage treatment plants — the money trail stops at the state governments, which are still deciding how to divvy up the funds. Only a fraction of the stabilization money has been sent to the states from Washington. 

Other programs, such as transit grants, mask where the jobs are created. When the Akron, Ohio, transit authority bought 19 buses, for example, it created work at local rubber suppliers — but also at the plants that made the buses in Kansas, North Dakota and California.

“It’s difficult to take into account all of the different dimensions,” said Steve Murdock, a former Census Bureau director who is a professor of sociology at Rice University. “You have populations with various kinds of needs and local economies that reflect different kinds of conditions.”

As Obama returns to Elkhart, he might want to consider LaGrange County just to the east.

While Elkhart County has been awarded about $169 per resident — a little less than the national average — LaGrange has received just $33 a person, according to the data.

Both counties saw their economies crater last year when high gas prices and tight credit made it difficult to sell recreational vehicles, a primary industry there. Dozens of factories, dealerships and suppliers shut down while thousands lost their jobs.

LaGrange County has several needed transportation and infrastructure projects, said Keith Gillenwater, the county’s economic development director. But so far, it has been shut out of any of the federal highway funding doled out by the state government.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “To me there’s a lot of disparity that should be re-examined and taken into consideration.”

© Copyright 2012 ProPublica Inc. All rights reserved.

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