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January 29, 2011

Social Woes, State by State

by brainoids

This analysis harkens back to December 2004, just after the Bush/Kerry elections.   Over the holidays I scraped a large amount of state-by-state rankings or metrics of various indicators of social well-being.   The results aren’t surprising – and mostly, I think, correlate with the grinding and pervasive impacts of poverty – but there are, I think, lessons to be learned.

The color scheme used throughout renders the “worst” scores red, and the “best” scores blue.   Yes, there are political overtones to that (it was, after all, 2004), but at the end of the day, the data are the data.

In almost all cases the valuation of ‘better or worse’ is obvious from the scores.  In a couple of cases I rely on valuations that shouldn’t be too controversial (regressive tax schemes are those which favor sales taxes, and I value as ‘worse’; higher than average statewide Federal subsidy is valued as bad; etc).

The rankings are broken out into 8 major categories, each of which is a composite of a number of specific indicators.  The diagram at left lays out the relationships.   Loosely, the major categories attempt to capture:

  • Mental well-being (“Sound mind”)
  • Financial independence (“Self reliance”)
  • Physical well-being (“Body / temple”)
  • Domestic well-being (“Family values”)
  • Sexual well-being (“Chastity & abstinence”)
  • Financial well-being (“Blessed / meek”)
  • Social well-being, or crime (“Do unto others”)
  • Educational well-being (“Right reason”)

The choice of cute-sy taglines which align along virtues is, of course, a not so subtle poke at the fact that states commonly equated with championing these virtues have (c.f. the data) some of the lowest track records at cultivating them within society.   In a less mean spirited way, this could be restated as a call in those states to double down and ensure that charitable social safety nets are firmly in place, since the choice of public policies alone seems to be insufficient.

Blessed be the meek

Starting with basic financial metrics helps set the baseline for the other indicators that follow.   As I’ve defined it, this metric includes not just income but the relative portions of state populations in poverty and child poverty, as well as the gaps between lower, middle, and upper income brackets.   States have an opportunity to “earn some credit back” with higher rates of charitable giving.   Tax regressiveness I have defined as (sales tax revenue / property + corporate + income tax revenue), and higher is worse.

There should be no surprises with worse scores in the south and in rural areas … again, this is a baseline.


As defined, this metric is largely dominated by the relative amount of Federal cash infusion into states (compared with what they pay in taxes).   This issue is (c.f. tea party) as pointed today as it was in 2004.   Unemployment is included as an indicator since it will correlate directly with unemployment insurance (not included in the Federal subsidy numbers).   Consumer credit scores is included as a throw-in indicator to allow some capture of relative “thrift” between state cultures.

This map is interesting when placed alongside “Blessed / Meek”.   Some states are clearly better than others (Alaska) at capturing Federal subsidy, and possibly well beyond their social need.

Do Unto Others

Apparently, latitude has a chilling effect upon crime (could not resist that pun).   This map is also interesting in that it shows that crime and poverty do not map one to one.   The previous maps showed rural areas with significant economic stress, and/or federal subsidy, which nonetheless have comparatively low crime rates.  In the Dakotas, culture seems to prevail; the Appalachians are also lower than might be expected based on the other indicators.

These data were from the 2003 time frame, which was comparatively early on in the assault of methamphetamine on middle America.   It would be interesting to revisit the statistics today.

Family Values

Keeping within the social arena, this metric includes indicators on marriage, divorce and child abuse.   I have also chosen to include census-registered domestic partnerships as a “good thing”; regardless of individual views on same sex relationships, I’m following the interpretation that two are better than one.

The spread in this metric is less pronounced from state to state, and the dominant trend seems to be a ‘challenged’ situation in the Southeast.   Western states fare comparatively well, overall.   Alaska, not so much.

Chastity & Abstinence

Moving to the related topic of sexual well being, this metric captures pregnancy, abortions, and sexually transmitted disease rates.   Here the South is joined by states with major population centers (New York, Maryland, California) as standing out.

It would appear that proximity to Canadian mores has a beneficial effect on the worst impacts of promiscuity.   Or, it’s just harder to get lucky up there.

Body / Temple

This metric includes a variety of health-related indicators.  Again the coupled issues of poverty, health and culture in the south are implied.

One of the more interesting features of this map is that states that stand out on the “good side” really stand out, and often have very sharp geographic contrasts with their neighbors.   To me, this suggest that health is a social concern which is strongly amenable to influence by public policy (i.e., cultural or economic influences would tend to have broader and less sharply defined boundaries; policy impacts would have sharp state-by-state contrasts).

Sound Mind

Turning to mental health, this metric includes both overall mental health rankings, as well as specific indicators for mental illness, suicide and drug use.

There are trends in this map for which I have no explanation.   The band of “comparative sanity” from the Dakotas through Texas, save  Oklahoma, is perplexing.  Is it a stoic, farmer-culture holdover?   Similarly put for the apparently “Wild West”.   Do the wide open spaces encourage and attract mentally marginal behaviors?

Joking aside, this looks like fodder for a good sociology Masters’ thesis topic.

Right Reason

If education is the first step in breaking the cycle which reinforces these social ills, then this metric is sobering.  The states which – from the previous metrics – need the most intervention also lag in the area of education.   This is not surprising, but particularly stark when contrasted so directly with the statistics on poverty, health and crime.


While the data for these maps dates from 2004, I strongly doubt there have been radical geographic shifts since then, unless the impacts of the 2008 financial meltdown have caused entirely new fractures to appear.

Most striking in these maps is the sheer persistence of “repeat offender” states across multiple metrics.   It is a sobering and painful reminder of the pervasive, insidious and interconnected impacts of poverty across the spectrum of societal needs.  In an era when it has become less politically fashionable to talk about the American underclass, the data nonetheless speak loud and clear.


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