WHEN THE IMPACT of mistaken federal policy changes -- like the potentially harmful ones in welfare -- begin to hit home, people in high-needs states like New York will start to complain. And if the past is any predictor, it's a good bet others will shout down the complaints by asserting that this state gets more than its fair share of federal help.
They'll be wrong -- again -- as the latest edition of an annual study prompted by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan makes clear. Figures compiled by researchers at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government show that New Yorkers still get the short end of the stick when it comes to what's been dubbed the "balance of payments."
That balance is the difference between what a state's taxpayers send to Washington in the form of personal and business income taxes, gasoline taxes and other federal levies and what the state receives in federal spending of all types.
For fiscal year 1995, New York sent a total of $17.7 billion -- or $978 per resident -- more to Washington than it got back. Only nine states had a worse per capita deficit.
But that's nothing new. New York has been a donor state ever since Moynihan began doing the calculations back in 1977. The problem is that New York's generosity is not very well known, even on the floor of Congress.
That's where decisions are made based on the perception that the rest of the country subsidizes us, when the truth is that almost all of the donor states are in the Northeast or the Midwest, while the states with their hands out are primarily in the South.
The erroneous assumption that New York is a beggar state is itself based on another misconception: that welfare spending drives a state's ranking in the apportionment of federal revenues. That fallacy was perpetuated last year by no less a know-it-all than House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But the Harvard experts note that while "income support and health-care spending are key determinants" of how federal dollars are apportioned, the bulk of that federal money goes to the elderly, "not to the poor."
"The nation spends almost ten times as much per capita for Social Security and other federal retirement programs as it does for food stamps and AFDC," the authors point out. "Thus, differences across states in the age distribution of their residents have much more to do with the relative balance of federal funding than differences in poverty rates."
And Moynihan notes that even the poverty rate itself is insufficient for making national decisions because it fails to take into account such factors as differences in cost-of-living. A more comprehensive index would show that New York deserves even more federal aid than the per capita average, not less.
None of that is to suggest a perfect balance between what a state sends to Washington and what it gets back. In a federal system, there are good reasons that some states -- for example, those with highly profitable financial sectors -- should contribute more while others with weaker economies might need more help.
But the imbalance shouldn't be as great as it is. And representatives of Southern states that benefit most should be forced to read the Kennedy School report before biting the hand that feeds them, and before advocating policies that will only make the imbalance worse.