Jeri Bilbo would seem a natural supporter of the Democratic Party’s vow to protect the social safety net during the spending-cut debate in Washington.
Her husband gets disability payments and government-funded health care after leaving his dock-worker job in New Orleans because of rheumatoid arthritis. They live in a drafty farmhouse in southern Mississippi having lost their home to foreclosure.
“It will keep the rain off us, but it won’t keep the cold off,” said Bilbo, 60.
Yet Bilbo, who registered as a Republican to vote as a high school senior, said she’s stuck with the party out of tradition. She’s an example of the contrarian nature of U.S. politics, where people often vote against their economic self-interest because of family, culture or such issues as abortion and guns.
“It’s a fundamental question: Are voters rational? They are, but not necessarily in ways that involve economic self-interest,” said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.
Still, as congressional Republicans press for deep spending cuts to reduce the U.S. deficit, they may alienate some constituents. Heberlig said voter attitudes could shift with time, even in the South. Should that happen, it might make some Republican-leaning states more competitive in federal elections.
“It’ll be interesting to see the extent that they might cause people to reconsider their ideological positions in light of different economic circumstances,” he said.
People in the South tend to be concentrated in “donor” states, those that receive more federal tax dollars than they contribute, Heberlig said. “If you listen to the rhetoric, you’d think it’d be just the opposite,” he said.
Democrats also vote at times against their own economic interests, since the representatives they send to Congress have generally been supportive of raising taxes. Among the 20 wealthiest congressional districts in the last Congress, 12 were represented by Democrats and eight by Republicans.
In the budget debates, Democrats argue for higher taxes to sustain spending on such programs as food stamps and Medicaid, which help lower-income voters. Republicans say the size and scope of government needs to be reduced, and both programs are prime targets.
Yet more Americans who identify themselves as “conservative” received government benefits than those who said they’re “moderate” or “liberal,” a survey last month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington showed.
The study found that 55 percent of U.S. residents have received Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance or cash-benefit payments. Those findings underscore the reach of government entitlement programs, with 60 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans claiming benefits.
Bilbo said she hopes Medicare, the insurance program for the elderly and disabled, remains robust because her husband depends on it.
“We’d be in deep shape without it,” she said during an interview in the children’s clothing store she runs for her daughter in Picayune, Mississippi.
Living mostly on a fixed-income from the disability payments, Bilbo said she has enough money to buy about two tanks of gas a month, along with other expenses. She said she suspects she might qualify for food stamps, although she hasn’t applied because she doesn’t want to waste federal money.
“Don’t use the taxpayer’s money to send me 10 bucks,” she said.
John Morgan, a Republican demographer based in Reston, Virginia, said his party has benefited from rural voters for decades because of its association with small-town values and self-sufficiency.
“It’s not economics,” he said. “It’s tradition.”
Hancock County, where Bilbo lives, backed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney with 75.5 percent of the vote. The county, which is 85.4 percent white and has 44,649 residents, saw its median household income fall 3.4 percent to $42,264 from 2008 to 2011, well below the national average of $51,484. Poverty in the county during the same period rose 47.8 percent, to 21 percent.
Seventy-nine percent of voters in adjacent Pearl River County, where Bilbo works, supported Romney even though the area’s economy has improved since President Barack Obama’s 2008 election. It has 55,718 residents, of whom 82 percent are white, and its median household income is $39,712. The percentage of households receiving food stamps fell to 19.5 percent in 2011, down from 20.6 percent in 2008, yet almost double the national rate of 11.7 percent.
Poplarville and Picayune, the two largest cities in Pearl River County, are dotted with payday loan businesses and inexpensive retailers such as Family Dollar Stores.
Glenda Hebert, 74, a Poplarville resident, says she voted for Romney and has been a lifelong Republican, even with her dependence on government anti-poverty programs.
Asked why she’s a Republican, Hebert’s answer is succinct: “Because I’m a Christian.” She said she attends an Assembly of God church and blames Obama for “murdering all the babies with abortion” and worries that “pretty soon he’ll be taking the guns away.”
Hebert, who volunteers at and receives assistance from the Brother’s Keeper Ministries food pantry, said she lives in a double-wide trailer “that’s falling apart” with her 47-year-old son. Medicare provides the bulk of her health coverage.
Prior to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Democrats were more common in the South. That past tradition is reflected in the name of the weekly newspaper, the Poplarville Democrat. Its editor, Kenneth “Butch” Weir, said his father contemplated changing the name when he owned the paper, as the area’s politics shifted Republican.
Asked whether lower-income Republicans there are voting against their economic self-interest, Weir said that there’s “probably some truth to that.” He attributed the pattern to the area’s rural roots.
“It gets back to that rural mindset of helping yourself and not being dependent on somebody for help,” he said.
Brian Frank, an associate pastor at a 1,500-member Baptist church in Pearl River County, attributes the Republican leanings of his congregation to similar reasons.
“It’s a rural mindset of hard work,” he said. “Rural people will take assistance, but their first priority is hard work.”
Susan Fuller, a volunteer at the food pantry in Poplarville who grew up in Michigan and moved to the area in the late-1970s, said the area’s politics is influenced by being part of what is often described as the nation’s Bible Belt.
“I think the morality tends to impact people’s voting,” she said. “They are very biblical down here.”