Mapping American progress

About three weeks ago, Jim Moss over at The Seminal laid the 2008 electoral results map over maps of poverty and income inequality. The visual comparison was illuminating, and Jim’s post got me to thinking – what if you did the same thing with a wider range of measures and rankings? What kind of picture would emerge? (Jim has himself expanded on the exercise in a couple follow-up postings here and here.)

So I spent some time digging, looking for data that may tell us something about how America is constructed at our current moment in time. Specifically, I went in search of information that would reveal something about the cultural progress we’re making. I’m not the first to do something along these lines – this red state/blue state comparison from after the Bush/Kerry election was revealing, to say the least – but I think it’s important to continue tracking ourselves according to how we’re doing on the values that are most likely to drive us onward and upward.

I focused on things like basic measures of prosperity, education, the arts, and so on. My reasons are pretty simple – education, in particular, is probably the single most important determiner for achievement and social health. More educated people earn more money, engage in fewer anti-social behaviors, contribute more to the economic and tax base, drive more innovation, and so on. Education is strongly linked to any number of economic vitality measures, and a recent study “finds the number of jobs created by increasing education spending is larger than jobs lost from raising taxes to support that spending.” On the whole, there’s no desirable social quality I’m familiar with that doesn’t correlate strongly with education.

I doubt my findings are going to tell you anything you probably don’t already know, but still, maybe the pictures will be interesting.

First, a note or two on methodology. What I did, in essence, was note that we have 51 jurisdictions voting for the president – 50 states + Washington, DC. Obama carried 29, McCain 22. So I color-coded each measure according to that 29-22 break in a way that will make sense once you look at it. Blue represents the high side – the top 29 jurisdictions – and red the low 22. This is not scientific, nor is it intended to be. The data I was able to find is imperfect in places, and I wish some of it were a little more current. The break around the 29-30 mark is often based on minute differences, and so on. So take these maps for exactly what they are – rough depictions of how our nation breaks down along a variety of subjective measures.

Let’s start by having a look at the electoral results from the presidential election.

Next, let’s see how these results correlate with financial well-being. The first graphic here indicates average pay.

Per capita income rates are obviously quite similar…

…as are median household income rates.

It appears that Obama did well in states where people are comparatively better off financially.

Now, let’s compare these maps with a few that tell us about our commitment to education. First, have a look at this graph, which depicts adult population levels with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

If you’re noticing that there’s a higher concentration of grads in blue states, maybe it’s because these states tend to spend more on education.

We don’t exactly lavish our teachers with money anywhere, but again, they have it better in blue states.

I’m not exactly sure what this next map tells us, but it’s interesting to note the relationship between income levels, attendance rates and voting behaviors.

At this stage, we at least have enough evidence to suspect a relationship between academic achievement, financial success and education. We probably won’t be surprised at what happens when we begin adding arts expenditures to the equation. Here, for instance, we see state appropriations for arts organizations.

The Americans for the Arts Action Fund report card evaluations returned results that look strikingly similar.

Do you see a pattern? I know I do. And I suspect that if I had excellent data on every measure of progressive tendency I can think of, the pattern would be even stronger. Is the correlation perfect? Of course not – if you overlay all these maps, what emerges looks like this:

So no, we’re not as perfect bifurcated as we might fear. And that’s good news.

While I hate how we’ve had our country turned into a red vs. blue battleground, for now the colors illustrate something important. Here, blue stands for prosperity, educational achievement and a commitment to the pursuit of our higher selves. And on these measures, bluer is better.


10 replies »

  1. Is that higher education figure per capita? Or just a count? And for all of them, since you’re just doing two colors (as opposed to a scale) it would be informative if you included where you set your thresholds. Right now, I don’t really know what any of those figures really mean.

  2. Ed numbers are per capita – flat numbers wouldn’t mean anything. And what the numbers mean is explained – the top 29 jurisdictions are blue, the bottom 22 are red.

    Come on, Mike – you’re killing me here… 🙂

  3. I was hoping it was per capita. I was just checking. And I got the blue vs. red on the first figure. I’m talking about all the other figures. For instance, what does blue vs. red really mean when you are talking about teacher salaries? There has to be a threshold where you said, teachers getting paid at least x amount voted blue.

  4. On teacher salaries, the 29 blue jurisdictions pay higher than the 22 reds. If you had lots and lots of data (and lots and lots of time) you could no doubt sort even more interesting results from all this. Sadly, I have to work for a living… 😐

  5. Hmmm. OK. I think I get it. But I wonder what it would look like if you normalized to cost of living in each state. Yeah…more time. Those figures are giving me a head ache, though. If you let your eyes go out of focus, the red states jump out at you like one of those 3-D magic eye pictures. That’s kinda scary. 🙂