Reporting from Beaufort, S.C. — When Rick Santorum stood in front of voters at a yacht club in this small town and pledged to slash government spending, especially entitlement programs, Nancy Garvin knew she had found her candidate.
Garvin, 54, said she was sick of seeing government squander money through agencies that don't do anything, and wants expenditures cut "in half."
"Washington is throwing money away through a lot of wasteful spending," she said, sitting at a picnic table beneath trees draped in graying Spanish moss.
But Garvin, whose husband, a carpenter, has been out of work for four years, depends on the very government she wants to see cut back. She collects disability insurance — it is what she and her husband have survived on as he's looked for work. Her mother is on Social Security. Garvin herself used to work as a nurse at a hospital where many patients paid for services through Medicaid, another program using federal money.
Garvin's views are similar to those of many Republican voters in this conservative state, where candidates pledging to cut government spending were met with resounding applause last week, and where former Gov. Mark Sanford tried to refuse federal stimulus funding on principle.
South Carolina and its residents benefit from government spending, more so than many other states. For every dollar the state pays in federal taxes, it receives $1.35 in federal government benefits. By contrast, California receives only 78 cents for every dollar it pays in taxes.
"We get more back from the federal government than we send in terms of revenue," said Doug Woodward, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina. "But I'm not sure that a lot of voters would even care if they heard that. When they say they want to see less spending in the state, they're referring to entitlement programs."
Much of the money spent in South Carolina goes to the programs that make up a big chunk of the federal budget — defense, Social Security and Medicaid. The state has seven military bases, and received $7 billion in Defense Department spending in 2010. One in five residents in South Carolina receives Social Security benefits — compared with just 13% in California. As an aging state, South Carolina will be more dependent on federal programs such as Social Security in the coming decade, according to AARP.
"People want to see lower government spending, especially on the Republican side," said Karen Kedrowski, a politics professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. "But when they're asked specifically about high-dollar items, including Social Security and defense, they are not willing to accept significant cuts."
Kedrowski's university recently polled South Carolina Republicans to ask about reducing the deficit by making cuts to government programs: 73% of voters said they weren't willing to have their current Social Security or Medicare benefits reduced to address budget concerns. More than half said they weren't willing to cut defense spending either.
It's not just wealthy Republican voters in the Palmetto State who say they eschew entitlement programs, Kedrowski said.
"There's also a disproportionate number of low-income people who vote Republican because they respond to the populist messages, even when it is against their economic interests to do so," she said.
Sheila Barton, 56, runs a floral shop in Pickens, a town that Rick Perry visited recently to stroll down Main Street and shake hands with store owners and residents.
"Americans don't want a government that's playing a bigger role in their lives," Perry had said at a speech earlier that morning. "No one's ever come up to me and said, 'We sure need to have more government in our lives.'"
Barton agrees — in principle.
"There's a lot of things that are wasteful," she said, but when pressed to name some, she said she couldn't really think of any off the top of her head. Defense spending should be increased, she said, and people who have paid into Social Security should receive their benefits. And local government programs need more funding, she said — she's currently a guardian for local children through the court system.
There is some evidence that South Carolina's opposition to government spending might further strangle the state's already weak economy — if it leads to cuts in Social Security. Roberto Gallardo of the Southern Rural Development Center says that economies in many small towns in South Carolina are increasingly dependent on Social Security payments.
The percentage of total personal income in South Carolina coming from Social Security's Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance programs was 7.6% in 2009, up from 3.8% in 1970. South Carolina ranks eighth in the nation on the group's Social Security Dependency Index, which measures how reliant local economies are on Social Security payments for job creation and consumer spending. Neighboring North Carolina ranked 23rd.
That means candidates have to walk a fine line here — promising to cut government to alleviate voters' fears, while still preserving the programs that require most of the spending. How else to appeal to such voters as Clifton Anderson of Camden, who went to see Rick Santorum speak in a diner in Ridgeway?
"His ideas of downsizing government are most important to me," said Anderson, about Santorum. He continued, in the next breath: "I also like his idea about strengthening defense."