Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Two Americas

Note: This post has been updated November 21 with some additional data

As everyone now knows, the election on November 2 revealed a stark political contrast between two Americas. New England and the mid-Atlantic states voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry, and the Great Lakes region and the Far West did so by somewhat smaller, but still significant, margins. (The most anomalous result occurred, as we shall see, in Iowa, where President Bush eked out a narrow win.) Meanwhile, the old Confederacy, the Ohio Valley and the plains and mountain states voted overwhelmingly Republican, largely, it would seem, out of concern for cultural issues such as gay marriage, divorce, and the role of religion in education and American life generally. The major media usually rely upon anecdotal evidence and pithy quotes to get the difference between Red and Blue America across, but the magic of the web and the logic of readily available statistics actually reveals that the differences between Bush and Kerry states are both very definitely measurable and ironically significant. These figures do not, however, inspire a great deal of confidence about the direction in which the nation seems to be heading, or about the likely significance of Red-state domination of the national government.

Beginning with the most controversial social issues, we find that divorce, teen pregnancy, and alcohol are actually far more serious problems in Red America than in Blue. American divorce rates in 2002 range from about 2.5 per thousand population in Delaware, Massachusetts, and Georgia (where the rate has been cut almost in half in the last 14 years), to over 6 per 1000 in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. 9 of the 13 states with the lowest divorce rates voted for Kerry, and 2 of the other 4 were Iowa and New Mexico, which Bush carried by the narrowest of margins. At the other extreme, the states with the 13 highest divorce rates all voted for the President--and no figures are available for two other Bush states, Indiana and Louisiana. The percentage of enduring marriages, in short, seems to be much higher on the eastern, northern and western periphery of the country than in the center.

Teen pregnancy, an even hotter-button issue, shows the same pattern. Teen pregnancy is more than twice as common in some states than in others, and the nine leaders are the District of Colombia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia--all but one in the Red zone. 14 of the 17 leading states in this category voted for Bush, and 17 out of the top 25. At the other end of the spectrum, 8 of the 9 states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates went for Kerry (North Dakota being the exception). Looking at the table, one cannot escape the conclusion that the states in which sex education (as opposed to abstinence education) is under attack are those with the highest teen pregnancy rates. The Blue-Red divide in this table is less striking than in some others because high teen pregnancies still correlate with large urban populations, but it is quite observable nonetheless.

Alcohol consumption in the United States has presented a surprising regional pattern over the last four decades. Remarkably, consumption in the northeast and on the west coast has dropped--particularly with respect to hard liquor, as white whine has replaced martinis as the drink of choice--while it has remained high in the upper Midwest and skyrocketed in the South. These trends are reflected in two other statistics, traffic accident fatalities and alcohol-related fatalities. The top 20 states in traffic fatalities per population, and 24 of the top 25, are Red states; 15 of the bottom 16 are Blue states. Nor are these differences trivial, either--there are three or four times as many traffic deaths per capita in Wyoming, Mississippi and Montana as there are in Massachusetts, New York, or the state of Washington. The rankings for alcohol-related traffic deaths track those for total fatalities quite closely, although alcohol is actually to blame for a higher percentage of traffic deaths in the Blue states than in the red. Blue drivers are safer drivers drunk or sober, but their lead is larger when sober. (These statistics are not the result of the lower population density and longer driving distances in Red States. Even controlling for million miles driven, Bush took the top 22 states in traffic fatalities.)

Violent crime shows a less clear, but still discernible pattern because it is apparently quite heavily correlated with large urban populations. Even so, President Bush carried 22 of the top 31 states in violent crime, while John Kerry took 9 of the 17 least violent states.

To judge from these figures, a concern for declining moral values in the United States seems to be a reaction to high teen pregnancy, violent crime, alcohol consumption, and divorce, rather than an effective cure. A real skeptic like the author might suggest that Calvinist theology increases these problems by inculcating so much shame among believers--but this is only an hypothesis. What is undeniable from another set of statistics, however, is the extreme correlation between greater wealth and better public services on the one hand, and lower rates of social pathology on the other.

President George W. Bush carried 26 of the bottom 28 states in per capita income--all of them but Maine and Oregon. (Florida ranked at the top of that group.) John Kerry took home 18 of the top 23, the exceptions being Colorado, Virginia (which appears to have an extraordinarily split demographic profile), Alaska, Wyoming, and Nevada. The President took 21 of the 24 states with the highest percentage of their population living in mobile homes, while Kerry took the bottom 13 states in that category. And because public expenditures tend to correlate with overall wealth, the President also carried 22 of the 23 states that had the lowest median salaries for primary and secondary school teachers, while Kerry took 12 of the 14 highest states in that category. (California is one of the exceptions. While still one of the richer states, its public education system is now the victim of a low-tax driven, 25-year decline.) These figures are even more interesting in light of exit poll data showing that the truly rich did vote for Bush in significantly higher numbers. Richer people voted for Bush, but richer states voted for Kerry. It’s the better-off middle class, apparently, that still believes government has a responsibility for the well-being of the average citizen. But as a proportion of the national population, that group is probably shrinking.

More important is the lesson of combining these two sets of figures: the cure for social pathology, it seems, isn't religion, but income. More income means more stable families, fewer teen pregnancies, less drunk driving, and, of course, fewer people in prison. The economic policies of the last 25 years, including lower top tax rates, higher payroll taxes, a drastic decline in unionization, the collapse of family farms, and more free trade agreements, have made a few people much richer while the bulk of the population has held steady or lost ground. And that probably has more to do with escalating social problems than R-rated movies.

A recent book, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, makes some related points and argues that Red state voters aren't getting much for their votes. As I have not yet had a chance to read it, I do not know whether Frank noticed another ironic consequence of the Red-Blue split--that Blue state money is doing a great deal to keep Red state economies even at the level they are at. A table provided by a Washington non-profit, the Northeast-Midwest institute, lists states by their per capita tax burden and by federal spending, per capita, within their boundaries. (Figures are from 2002). New England's three smallest states--Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island--receive more from the Federal Government than they pay in, but the three largest and richest ones, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, show the opposite pattern, and as a whole the region receives only $.89 of every dollar that it pays in to the federal treasury. The Middle Atlantic, where New Jersey gets only $.66 of every dollar back and New York just $.87, shows a similar picture although Pennsylvania shows a small profit and Maryland, not surprisingly, a huge one. In the Far West California receives just $.79 of every dollar back, and neither Oregon nor Washington makes a profit either. And of Kerry's midwestern states--Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin--not one gets more than $.90 back on every dollar.

Astonishingly, the South, the most anti-federal government region in theory, does best in practice. With two interesting exceptions--Texas, which got only $.96 of every tax dollar back, and Florida, which broke even--the old Confederacy received from $.27 (Tennessee) to $.88 (Mississippi) extra cents back for every dollar paid in. (I would welcome any explanation of exactly what kind of payments these are.) Robert Byrd's care for his home state is no legend--West Virginia is near the leaders, getting $1.88 back for every dollar. All the Red states west of the Mississippi also showed a profit, with the single exception of Nevada. Farm subsidies, apparently, are keeping many of those states alive. Were it not for the federal government--the entity Grover Norquist wants to shrink until he can drown it in a bathtup--the per capita income disparities between the Red and Blue regions would be much larger. Relatively, if not absolutely, the Republicans are taking care of their own. Perhaps Blue staters should stop feeling guilty about federal income tax cuts--if the poorer states want to get poorer to our benefit, why should we worry?

Stepping backwards for a moment to evaluate these statistics and their political consequences historically yields an interesting conclusion. Eighty years ago (there's that figure again!), the Bible Belt was also culturally on the offensive, giving the nation both Prohibition (an even more disastrous attempt to wipe out sin) and a revived Ku Klux Klan. Those movements, however, belonged more to the Democratic than the Republican Party. Now the Red states have joined in an alliance with big business--an alliance which, as more and more observers are beginning to note, has done less than nothing for the heartland, either economically or culturally. Meanwhile, the Republicans have kept alive the transfers from the richer to the poorer states that were one of the hallmarks of the new deal. The question for the country is how long this alliance can endure--and whether Blue America will become more like Red America, or vice verca.

1 comment:

Matthew E said...

Interesting stuff as always. Have you seen this guy?