Taker nation: Where federal spending goes, and why it’s so tough to cut

WELLINGTON, Kan. — On a bright morning, a dozen friends gather around a table at the Daylight Donuts.

The day’s topic? The federal government’s unquenchable thirst for tax dollars.

The verdict: Some Washington programs waste money, others don’t. Too often, it’s hard to tell which is which.

“People don’t connect the dots,” says Shelley Hansel-Williams, who runs the area chamber of commerce.

“They don’t. That’s true,” agrees Elaine Freeman, who runs the shop with her husband, Wendell.

Vince Wetta, a former state lawmaker, drops by with an explanation.

“We tend to be very conservative, and railing about smaller government,” he tells the group. “Yet we’re dependent on big government.

“I think it’s a contradiction.”

It’s a conflict almost all of America shares.

This table, and the Kansas county that stretches around it, may be among the very best places to understand what that means — for our politics, our government, and our nation’s fiscal future.

Some 24,000 people, give or take, live in Sumner County, a farming county south of Wichita on the Oklahoma border.

That’s just a few thousand less than a century ago, when expanding, publicly backed railroads eclipsed the Chisholm cattle trail that crossed the county on its way to Abilene. Freight trains still split this rich farmland, their honk stirring the memories of retired linemen in the county.

Huge concrete grain silos form a skyline as a constant reminder of the county’s farming roots and its special pride in a self-reliance tested by 125 years of blistering heat, brutal snow, floods, drought and a generally unforgiving world.

The locals are deeply conservative.

So conservative, in fact, that a year ago Sumner County’s commissioners — worried about Washington’s “nose under the tent” — flatly told the federal government they had no use for the money it offered to provide for sustainable community planning.

Voters here elect reliably anti-tax and anti-spending lawmakers to the Kansas Statehouse. Their congressman, Republican Mike Pompeo, ranks as one of the 10 most conservative members of the U.S. House. He defeated his last opponent by a 2-to-1 margin.

Last November, 68 percent of Sumner County went for Mitt Romney.

“We have a very large contingent of people who are very much against federal spending,” said state Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Democrat who represents part of Sumner.

Or, as retiree Fred Christian puts it at the doughnut table: “They think the government’s too liberal.”

So it’s likely most Sumner voters nodded in agreement last year when Romney called 47 percent of Americans “takers” — so reliant on federal aid they couldn’t be persuaded that runaway federal debt threatens economic freedom.

Yet, as Wetta suggests, Sumner County is a taker.

In fiscal year 2010, for example, the U.S. government spent roughly $189 million in Sumner County, almost $7,900 for every man, woman and child who lives here. That’s an estimated 40 to 50 percent more, on average, than each county resident paid in federal taxes.

Much of that spending went for Social Security and Medicare. Almost 16 percent of Sumner County’s residents are older than 65.

But the federal government provides food stamps for more than 2,400 people in the county, on average, every month — costing taxpayers $3.5 million a year. It spent $15.7 million in 2010 to provide Medicaid health care coverage for 3,700 of the county’s poor. It spent $69,284 that year for aviation improvements.

Washington sends subsidies to eight county school districts for teachers — and for lunch. It spent more than $7 million from the 2009 stimulus bill for the county’s schools. It provides housing assistance for those in poverty.

The federal government sends checks big and small. It helps pay for wastewater disposal and economic development in Sumner County. It insures home mortgages. It spent $13,500 in 2010 for small-business loans. It spent $2,266 in burial expenses for Sumner County veterans.

And it sends millions of dollars to Sumner County’s farmers.

Scott Van Allen has farmed 2,300 Sumner County acres for more than three decades, mostly wheat. He’s a conservative, worried Washington is going broke.

But Van Allen takes federal farm subsidies — direct payments and taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. He’s lost uninsured crops to bad weather and won’t do it again.

From 2007 to 2011, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group, Van Allen has taken more than $200,000 in subsidies from a Washington he doesn’t fully trust.

“It is hypocrisy,” he admits, with a rueful smile.

But like Van Allen, almost all of us are takers, whether we know it or not.

“People don’t have an honest view of what they’re getting from the government,” said Steven Maynard-Moody, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas. “We take an enormous amount for granted.”

Indeed, understanding the full extent of the federal spending juggernaut can be difficult. Buried in a blizzard of fiscal cliffs, sequesters, budget resolutions and ticking debt clocks, Americans have become jaded about the ways the government spends its money — when they aren’t completely baffled.

For three months, The Kansas City Star reviewed dozens of databases and hundreds of federal records to more fully understand how the federal government spends its money in Sumner County, Kan., and elsewhere in Kansas and Missouri. The newspaper examined spending for health care, Social Security, education, welfare and scores of other federal programs.

We picked Sumner County because it’s typical of most of rural America. Except for its agriculture spending — which is often higher than in any other county in the state — federal expenditures here appear to fall within expected ranges.

We didn’t count the non-cash federal benefits Sumner Countians enjoy along with all Americans: a strong national defense, for example, or a sound currency.

We didn’t count tax breaks such as tax-free health insurance benefits or deductible home mortgage interest. Those cost the federal treasury hundreds of billions of dollars, but they aren’t considered direct government spending like farm subsidies, food stamps or Medicare. Instead, our study examined how deeply the federal government has embedded itself in the daily life of Sumner County — as it does everywhere. The figures suggest Washington has steadily entangled itself with almost every American, from the cradle to the casket: our health, our nutrition, our education, our housing, our retirement.

“People have no idea how important federal spending is,” said Rebecca Thiess of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-of-center think tank. “Education, the elderly, service to the disabled, firefighters. … It’s vastly important.”

In the book “A Nation of Takers,” conservative author Nicholas Eberstadt writes: “A treasure-chest of government-supplied benefits is open for the taking for every American citizen — and exercising one’s legal rights to these blandishments is now part and parcel of the American way of life.”

And that, in turn, may help us understand why cutting federal spending is so devilishly difficult.

Almost all Americans support cuts to federal spending as an abstract idea. But if Washington dramatically changes meals for seniors, or Head Start, or Medicare payments to hospitals, or mortgage supports, communities could be devastated. Imagine, for instance, how Jackson County might fare if the $9 billion delivered from Washington each year disappeared.

It might be even worse in Sumner County.

Eliminating food stamps would mean less traffic at the Wal-Mart, for example. Cuts in Social Security would mean fewer trips to the Freemans’ doughnut shop. Lower farm subsidies might mean less money for purchases at Rausch Seed in Belle Plaine or a new piece of equipment at the Tractor Supply Co. in nearby Wichita.

That, in turn, would mean fewer jobs, less local tax revenue, fewer teachers — a county death spiral.

It’s no mystery why Americans are hooked on federal spending.

“In every little aspect of our lives, we’ve inserted some sort of a government program,” said state Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a GOP conservative who represents part of the county.

Yet solving the nation’s ruinous budget gap may not be possible unless Americans more fully understand their reliance on Washington.

Democrats and Republicans have argued over federal spending and deficits for years. This month, President Barack Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion spending blueprint sharply at odds with the GOP’s vision.

Neither party, though, seems committed to a central truth: Ending trillion-dollar deficits will require substantial constituent sacrifice, either by slashing popular programs or raising taxes. Or both.

“We don’t have leadership in either political party,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery, “that is honest with the American public about the very significant change that is needed.”

Change would mean pain for Sumner County, and for all of us.