Which U.S. counties rely most on government benefits?

Zachary Roth
Senior National Affairs Reporter
The Ticket

It's not news that reliance on government benefits is on the rise -- not just since the economic downturn of recent years, but over the last few decades. In 1969, 8 percent of Americans' income came from benefits programs. By 2009, that figure had more than doubled to 18 percent.

But which parts of the country count on those benefits the most? Using Labor Department data, the New York Times assembled a fascinating interactive county-by-county map that looks at the totality of government benefits -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, jobless benefits, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and more.

Some of the key findings:
• In some of the country's poorest areas -- eastern Kentucky, northern Michigan, south Texas on the Mexican border, and parts of Arizona and New Mexico -- benefits account for over 40 percent of all income.

• Social Security is by far the largest single government benefit program, accounting for nearly 6 cents out of every dollar taken in by Americans in 2009. Not surprisingly, it makes up an especially large share of income in retirement havens like Sarasota, Fla., the Carolina coast, and parts of Arizona.

• Unemployment benefits play a relatively small role in the overall government safety net. They accounted for just 1.1 percent of all income, or about 6 percent of all benefits income. They're most relied upon, of course, in areas hit hard by the jobs crisis -- southern Oregon, northern Michigan, central Pennsylvania, and Nevada.

One additional point: As an accompanying story noted, many of the counties that are most dependent on these benefits are rural, and lean politically conservative. It wasn't hard for the paper to find residents who decry the growth of the government safety net -- while relying on it themselves.

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