The results of the 2016 election have led to a renewed surge of interest in the idea of regional development and the notion that policymakers ought to pay more attention to the specific dynamics of place and community and not just individuals or broad national averages.
This newfound enthusiasm for regional focus is in many ways welcome, but its specific connection to the presidential election is a little bit odd because the main region of electoral interest — a string of industrial or post-industrial swing states bordering on the Great Lakes — simply isn’t a particularly poor region of the United States. One could, of course, choose to ignore that fact and focus national policymaking on economic development in hotly contested swing states rather than in needy areas (politicians do lots of weird things, after all).
But a policy to promote targeted economic growth in America’s most struggling regions won’t do much for voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, since those states aren’t America’s most struggling regions. If anything, such a policy would likely only increase those voters’ sense that America’s political elites are ignoring them in favor of other people.
Appalachia and the Deep South are America’s low-income regions
The seven poorest states of the union — Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana — form a sort of broad arc along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. New Mexico, South Carolina, and Oklahoma round out the bottom 10, and, while not contiguous with the poorest seven, they are also not in the Midwest and not electorally competitive.
Michigan is 34th out of 50 in terms of median household income, Pennsylvania is 23rd, and Wisconsin is 21st. Beyond those three, the closest electoral result was in New Hampshire, the sixth-richest state.
A county-level map adds nuance but confirms the basic result. The poor regions of the United States are Appalachia (which extends a bit into southeastern Ohio), the Cotton Belt in the Deep South, and a smaller poor region in the Rio Grande Valley. These regions are joined by scattered sparsely populated, low-income rural counties, often associated with Native American reservations.
Poverty isn’t high in industrial swing states
Of course, medians can mask significant internal disparities, so it’s also interesting to consider state-level poverty rates.
Here too, though, a policy designed to target assistance to high poverty states would not reach the industrial Midwest. The 10 states with the highest poverty rates are Mississippi, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, West Virginia, Arizona, and Tennessee.
Michigan’s 16.2 percent poverty rate makes it a somewhat lower-poverty state than Texas, Oregon, or California. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have less poverty than New York.
New Hampshire, where Clinton enjoyed her smallest margin of victory, has the lowest poverty rate in the nation.
The Electoral College is a bad policy targeting tool
Since the Electoral College exists and since its existence has proven crucial to the outcomes of two recent US presidential elections, it would be nice to think that it serves some useful purpose.
Drawing national political attention to urgent localized economic problems that could go missing in a nationwide campaign would be such a purpose.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in practice. The states that were pivotal in the 2016 election have their share of problems, of course, just like all places do. But it’s not a particularly distressed region, and efforts to target assistance to electorally crucially Midwestern industrial states would end up bypassing the places that are most in need. The deepest distress, meanwhile, comes in states that are so deeply red that neither party has much electoral incentive to achieve marginal improvements.