Thursday, August 06, 2009

Stimulus for the Florida Panhandle

Pro Publica is publishing "Recovery Tracker," containing detailed data, state-by-state and county-by-county, showing to whom, for what, and in what sums the Obama administration's economic stimulus money has been allocated. At a glance, it looks like Florida is getting far more than its share, and the Northwest Panhandle is doing even better than that.

To be sure, Escambia County is poorer than your average Florida county. (See averages listed in the image, above). Apart from Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach, and various other pockets of wealthy neighborhoods scattered throughout the county, Escambia has a relatively high poverty rate and a very bad unemployment rate.

Click the image above to read a screen shot of the overall numbers for Escambia County. To see a detailed breakdown for each county --

Click here for Escambia County

Click here for Santa Rosa County

It needs to be emphasized that the data is only a small portion of the overall stimulus package, and it is incomplete. As Michael Grabell and Jennifer la Fleur explain:
ProPublica combined all the data on the federal stimulus Web site,, 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.

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.

Since Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties also have a lot of older, poorer retirees who draw Medicaid, it's a good guess we're doing even better than these preliminary numbers would suggest.

Pro Publica is griping that based on available data it looks like some poorer counties aren't getting as much as most richer counties. But this is a cheap shot, and misleading to boot. The example Pro Publica uses -- LaGrange County, Indiana and Trigg County, Kentucky -- shows just how deceptive it is.

The first thing to be said is that no one ever claimed the economic stimulus package was an anti-poverty program. It isn't. It's an economic stimulus program, designed to rescue the economy and jobs. What sort of places are central to the U.S. economy and jobs? Cities with people and towns with employers. What sort of places are not so central? Vast unpopulated areas with lots of trees and cows or polar bears.

The second thing is that statistical comparisons of small population samples can be very misleading. Pro Publico surely knows this, yet they hardly mention it when speaking of the two low-population counties they cherry-picked for an example.

LaGrange County, Indiana has a total population of 37,172. It's receiving about $30 per person in stimulus money. By contrast, Trigg County, Kentucky, has only 13,418 people. Pro Publica's partial data show it is receiving $2,419 per capita. Both counties have an unemployment rate standing at about 15.8 percent, yet they are getting widely different averages of stimulus money on a per capita basis.

For another example, Pro Publica could have looked at Yukatat County, Alaska. Total population: 657. Total stimulus grants: $137,685. Average per capita: $210 per person!

Of course tiny-populations will get more per capita, on average, than larger populations. There isn't much you can do to stimulate a predominantly rural, very thinly-populated county if you merely give them the same per capita share allocated to cities and towns. What can be done in Yukatat County, Alaska, with, say for example, $30 for every man, woman, and child? Give everyone an extra pair of mittens?

As even Pro publica admits, "Overall, the counties faring the best in the stimulus program are sparse communities with a giant road project." There are two reasons for that, of course, and it has to do with small population statistical theory and the relatively fixed price of construction goods like cement and steel girders.

There is, however, one thing for sure: the Obama administration is not playing politics with the stimulus money. The particular Indiana county that Pro Publica cherry-picked, and which it implies got short-changed on a per capita basis, voted for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008 by a margin of 51.6 percent to 49.4 percent. By contrast, Trigg County, Kentucky, is receiving a whopping $2,419 per resident. It went overwhelmingly for McCain, 64.2% to 34.4%.

Here in Northwest Florida, with almost the same unemployment rates (15.4%) as the two out-of-state counties mentioned by Pro Publica, Escambia County is getting an average of about $104 per person and smaller-population Santa Rosa County about $158 per person.

Needless to say, this red-painted buckle on the Bible Belt of America mostly voted overwelmingly for McCain in 2008. The percentages were 59.02% to 39.76% for McCain (Escambia) and 51% to 49% for Obama (Santa Rosa County - excluding minor candidates).

There appears to be no partisan pattern to the distribution of stimulus money. That is as it should be, of course. But you can bet it wouldn't have been the way a Republican administration would have done it.

If McCain/Palin had won, all the stimulus money would have gone to Halliburton Corp.


Anonymous said...

There may be no partisan pattern, but maybe there's a Sam Hall pattern. The Pensacola City Councilman was born in Trigg County.

Anonymous said...

Pensacola Problems mapped: