how does your state budget compare?

Bill Gates has put an interactive tool on his website that enables you to see how your state is allocating its resources and how that compares with what other states are doing. This is fun but also, after a while, less than instructive.

The stats do tell you some interesting things about your state. Compare, for example, Texas and California, two geographically large states with big populations and a lot of immigration. Texas has elected to put a lot of money into education. It leads the nation in K-12 spending as a percentage of the state budget, and it’s about average in higher ed spending. It also spends a lot on corrections, transportation, and “other.” (Other includes state police.)

Adjusting for population (California has 50% again as many people as Texas), California’s numbers are roughly similar in the above categories — we spend a little more on corrections and a little less on transportation, but about the same on education — the biggest chunk of both budgets. So why is California’s budget 2.5 times the size of Texas’?

The simple answer is: public assistance and Medicaid. Texas, with a population of almost 25 million, spends $6.7B on Medicaid and $378M on public assistance. California, with a population of nearly 40 million, spends an astonishing $40.2B on Medicaid and $10.3B on public assistance. (“Public assistance” in both states includes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is a federal program that gives states block grants.)

The California numbers sound huge, and they are. If roughly 1 in 6 Californians lives in poverty, then we spend about $7900 per year per poor person. That’s for everything — medical care, food stamps, child care, etc. The number for Texas is on the order of $2500.

But then, with those numbers in hand, I feel I’m left with little in the way of real understanding. Is it three times better (less painful, less shitty) to be poor in California than in Texas? What is the subjective experience of that? Perhaps Texas simply marshals its resources more effectively, so that the qualitative experience of being on public aid in Texas isn’t that much worse than that of being on public aid in California. I don’t know, and I feel sure most other middle-class commentators don’t either.

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