TOPICS > Economy

Stimulus Money Plows Through Tractor Country

October 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez speaks with Dante Chinni of the Patchwork Nation project about tracking federal stimulus money as it is dispersed through America.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: where the government’s stimulus money is going, as broken down by Patchwork Nation, an on-air and online project that will be making regular contributions to the NewsHour in the months ahead.

Ray Suarez is our guide.

RAY SUAREZ: And I’m here with Dante Chinni, who heads up the Patchwork Nation project.

And, Dante, you and your team have looked where the stimulus money has gone so far. What have you found?

DANTE CHINNI: Yes. With the help of ProPublica, who kind of sorted some of the stuff out by county, we mapped it. And then we have these counties broken in types. So, we can kind of get a sense what kind of place in America, what type of community is getting the money.

And these are highway funds. This isn’t all of the stimulus, but this is the thing they thought would create the most jobs. And, so far, it’s largely going to rural, agricultural America, per capita. The largest amounts, by far, are going there. And, you know, that’s — that’s not necessarily bad.

Those places, a lot of times, have building that needs to be done, gravel roads that needs to be made permanent. But the point of the stimulus was to help unemployment. And those places aren’t struggling with unemployment right now.

RAY SUAREZ: The counties with the heaviest spending, in absolute terms and in per capita terms, are in the darkest green. And it looks like they’re concentrated west of the Mississippi.

DANTE CHINNI: Yes, absolutely. It’s — it’s — and this has to do somewhat with the way the funding works for highway money.

When — when they — when they decided to put this money forward as a stimulus — stimulus plan, it goes into highway — it goes for highway funds, but they didn’t kind of change the formula. The formula is based more upon miles driven, miles of road in the area. So, you tend to go out to less crowded areas, less industrial areas, fewer cities, really.

RAY SUAREZ: And those are the places where people drive very long distances…

DANTE CHINNI: That’s right.

RAY SUAREZ: … and have a lot of roads.

DANTE CHINNI: And some of those places do need help.

Rural areas reaping the benefits

Dante Chinni
Patchwork Nation
Tractor country, these real agricultural centers, did very well. They did better than every one of our communities, except for two

RAY SUAREZ: Now, those high per capita numbers, are they just a function of small populations, or is there something else going on here?

DANTE CHINNI: You know, look, in part, this is -- this is a function of a small population. If I go to a town of 100 people, and I give them a million dollars, a million dollars is not a lot of the -- is not a lot of the stimulus, but, split amongst 100 -- 100 people, it looks decent.

But it's more than that, because, when you break the counties out into these types, as we do, we're able to get a feel for -- in each one of these 12 communities, we have identified who's getting the most, not even in per capita terms, but in just real raw numbers terms.

And tractor country, these real agricultural centers, did very well. They did better than every one of our communities, except for two. And that does show a kind of oddity in terms of what you want to do with the money, what you think it's supposed to be for.

RAY SUAREZ: So, compare two places on the map to show the way -- the way this money is being deployed.

DANTE CHINNI: Right.

Well, let's take a look, first of all, in Nebraska at a place -- at a place called Thomas County. They are doing very well, you could say, so far in the stimulus. They're going to end up clearing well over $1,100 per person. That's pretty nice money.

Actually, it's -- it's even higher than that. That is because they have one big project in the county. It's a viaduct to go over a train track. And that is $7 million split amongst, you know, a couple hundred people. And it makes a big difference in the per capita spending there.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, on the other end of...

DANTE CHINNI: On the other end of the -- on the other end of the spectrum, you go up to Wayne County, which is home of Detroit, which everybody knows is suffering right now.

And Wayne, you know, if you look at the raw dollar terms, is going to do OK. But it's -- it's -- it's $79 million, you know. But when you break that out amongst all the people in Wayne County, the two million people in Wayne County, it breaks down to about $40 per person. That's what's committed in the long term.

So far, they have gotten less than $2 per capita. And that's in a county where the unemployment rate is 18 percent. And I also would note that, when you go over to Thomas County in Nebraska, the unemployment rate is under 5 percent. They're just -- they're living in a different economy.

Defining a patchwork nation

Dante Chinni
Patchwork Nation
The idea behind it is, let's break the country's counties, the 3,100-plus counties, into 12 different types of place, and see the way these different types of place are dealing with...the changing economy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, tell us more about Patchwork Nation. The idea is not to compare American places region to region or state to state, but by kinds of places, right?

DANTE CHINNI: Right.

The idea behind Patchwork Nation is that, you know, regions -- breaking the country into regions, or even defining them by states, talking about Michigan or California, doesn't really do the trick.

I mean, when you -- when you look at what makes different parts of the country go, different areas in the country go, it's different things. So, places with colleges or universities in their town, a big college or university kind of defines that place. It changes what it is.

Big cities, big diverse cities, places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, that's a type of place. The suburbs around those areas, those are types of place.

So, the idea behind it is, let's break the -- let's break the country's counties, the 3,100-plus counties, into 12 different types of place, and see the way these different types of place are dealing with kind of the changing economy, in particular, changing political picture, and get a feel for kind of the direction these different -- these different really countries inside the country are moving at a kind of interesting point in history.

RAY SUAREZ: So, if you use that kind of analysis to look at, for instance, where people are losing their jobs...

DANTE CHINNI: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: ... what do you get?

DANTE CHINNI: You get -- you get a picture, it's very different from the national unemployment picture. The national employment picture would say the employment rate is, you know, roughly 10 percent.

And that's true in some of the communities we look at. In these places we called the money burbs, the wealthy suburban areas, it's true. But, when you zero in on some places, when you go to the big cities, the unemployment -- the unemployment rate is over 10 percent. If you go to these communities that have high concentrations of African-American population, in the South, primarily, there, you're looking at unemployment rates of 11 percent, 12 percent.

These small rural areas, not agricultural areas, but kind of small areas that -- small-town areas we call service worker centers, again, unemployment rates of 11 percent, 12 percent. These places are -- you know, they're really experiencing different economies.

And tractor country, those -- those agricultural areas, it's about 5 percent. They're -- they're -- it's a different world for them.

Mapping differing economies

Dante Chinni
Patchwork Nation
We're trying to use numbers to quantify [the state of the economy], and then map it.

RAY SUAREZ: So, when we look at places that are in the same state, sometimes right next to each other...

DANTE CHINNI: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: ... they don't have as much in common with each other as either of those counties might have with other places in the country?

DANTE CHINNI: Right. That's -- that's exactly right.

And I think that, you know, this is something you probably kind of know in your -- somewhere, we all know this in our head. You drive 10 miles, you realize, hmm, this is a very different place.

We're trying to -- to, you know, use numbers to quantify that, and then map it. Two -- one place that's interesting is, if you go up to Pennsylvania and you look at two counties that are right next to each other, Clinton County and Cameron County, Clinton County is this county that we -- fits into a type we call a campus and careers community.

It's right next -- it's near the county where Penn State is, so it has -- it has a much younger -- it has a younger population than Cameron County. The unemployment late there is about 9 percent.

Next door, Cameron County, much smaller, it's about 6,000 people, vs. 38,000 people in Clinton, small -- bunch of small towns. The unemployment rate there is 18 percent. It's double. It's an older population. It's -- it really is a different kind of place, even though the counties share a border.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Dante, you and I will be hitting the road later this year to do a series of reports on how these different communities have been faring during the recession, from east to west, Philadelphia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Sioux Center, Iowa; Eagle, Colorado; and Lincoln City, Oregon.

Should be good.

DANTE CHINNI: Yes, different places, different stories. It should be fun.

RAY SUAREZ: Dante Chinni, thanks for joining us.

DANTE CHINNI: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Patchwork Nation stories and maps are all on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org. Once there, you can ask Dante questions about the project and about what he's uncovered in communities across the United States.