Free College For Northerners (or Why the South Votes Clinton)

As the primary season winds on, I hear a bit of dismay from Sanders supporters that he never seemed to get within 30 points of Clinton below the Mason Dixon line, without much thought about what this might mean beyond the electoral math. This is unfortunate, because while Sanders aims to fix the political system so it works for “The People,” only about 20% Black Americans vote for him,  and they are the people most reliably left behind by the political process.

To understand this paradox, a good place to start is Sanders’s “free college for all Americans” plan. It’s far more expansive than Clinton’s policy, and Sanders’s insistence that his plan is to make public college tuition free for ALL Americans seems promising. Clinton’s more modest focus on community college is distinctly less ambitious than Sanders’, about which says, without any trace of ambiguity:

The S. 1373: College for All Act, which he introduced, would make all public colleges and universities tuition-free

But here’s the dicey bit. Click through the link, and you see that the plan is to offer states 67% of the cost to help them make college tuition free, if they meet a few goals. Of every $100 it would cost for a state to eliminate tuition, the state would still have to pay $33. For states where the government wants to help poor people and are willing to spend a bit to do so, this is a great deal. But to be clear, nothing in this plan will make college tuition free for students in states where the government doesn’t want to help.

The structure of this is a lot like the Medicaid expansion that was part of Obamacare–the federal government offers to pay most the bill, and the states pay a smaller portion.  The Medicaid expansion was an offer to cover 90% of the cost rather than 67%, but the basic structure was the same: the federal government offered to pay most of the bill, so that a state government could help poor people living there. Unsurprisingly, a whole lot of states took the deal on Medicaid, and those states were the ones that looked like Vermont. Wealthy, white northern states overwhelmingly accepted the deal on Medicaid, while poor southern states (with lots of minorities) did not take the deal, leaving millions of their poorest uninsured, even though the Federal government was offering to pay 90% of the cost. Since Bernie’s plan is significantly less generous than the Medicaid expansion, I think it’s reasonable to imagine that the states that turned down the Medicaid expansion aren’t likely to make tuition free for their students.  Bernie’s plan is not to make college tuition free for all American students, it’s to make college tuition free for all students if their state governments want to help with the cost.

If we look at the states that chose not to expand Medicaid, we can get a pretty good idea which states would choose not to make college tuition free, and it’s a map that looks quite a bit like the map of Clinton’s support.

Looking at the map of Medicaid expansion (via USA Today) and the map of Clinton’s victories (via NYTimes), it seems like maybe the reason he can’t break out of the low 30s among southerners is because he, or at least a centerpiece of his candidacy, is not set up to help them!

Sanders’s may know how to make government work in the northern states, like Vermont, but his repeated policy proposals that help predominately white northerners suggest he either does not know or does not care about how help people whose state governments are less interested in helping them.  Sanders has trouble getting southerners to vote for him because when it comes time to make the compromises that go into policy, he’s all too happy to leave them behind, and then pretend like he didn’t.


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