State of the Union January/February 2005

Continental Divides

The Crescent of Crime, the Spousal Spine, the Divorce Coasts, the Righteous Region, and other sources of national greatness

The secret to America's greatness is diversity. But America can't be diverse without divisions. And we are a divided nation. We've recently been through one of the bitterest, most hard-fought and polarizing contests of modern times. As a lone Yankees fan in New England, I can attest to the passions involved.

Maybe the real secret to America's greatness is that we hate one another. Consider the enmity between unions in the smokestack industries and lovers of the Kyoto Protocol, between feminists and sexually predatory chief executives, between Hispanics and blacks, between blacks and Jews. Put them together and you get the power of the Democratic Party. Likewise with Republicans. Their might is dependent on alliances of mutual distaste: country cousin and country club, white collar and white trash, Rotary and Davos, Neanderthal know-nothings and neocon know-it-alls, fans of Pat Robertson and fans of Pat Buchanan.

In an attempt to understand our source of national greatness, The Atlantic presents a series of maps illustrating some of America's less examined contrasts and clashes. The recent annual data on which the maps are based come from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Uniform Crime Report, and a company called Applied Geographic Solutions, or AGS. AGS provides demographic and marketing data to business and industry. The fact that Americans don't agree not only makes us strong, it makes us money.

Click here to view a PDF file containing the maps referred to in this article.

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The statistical pictures displayed here are neither detailed nor exact, and should be interpreted with caution. But what fun would that be? By applying hasty generalization, unconscious prejudice, and invidious comparison, we can start all sorts of arguments.

For example, what is the connection between poverty and crime? Some of the poorest parts of Arizona are some of the safest. Ditto in Missouri and West Virginia, yet not in Alabama and Mississippi. The poor border regions of Texas have few crimes. The slightly less poor border regions of New Mexico, Arizona, and California have plenty. Alabama and Georgia contain more poor counties than North and South Carolina, but the Carolinas report more criminal activity—although this may be a Barney Fife thing. Washington State appears to be crime-ridden. Microsoft monopoly practices?

The impecunious citizens of eastern Montana and the Dakotas are law-abiding. The prosperous citizens of Florida are otherwise. Maybe retirees are America's secret criminal class. This would explain the felonious Sunshine State and the great American Crescent of Crime that begins in seniors-friendly New Mexico, sweeps through the golden-age communities of Arizona and southern Nevada, and continues up the Winnebago-frequented Pacific Coast. The services of Batman (getting on in years himself) are no longer needed in the Gotham metropolitan area. He should move to Miami, Las Vegas, or Palmdale, California.

Other causes of crime are harder to postulate. Why the relative lawlessness of Minnesota compared with Wisconsin and Iowa? Has Garrison Keillor been sugarcoating his stories about Lake Wobegon? Is Eminem responsible for Michigan's Midwestern Malfeasance? And why is there a tiny dot of red in the barely populated extreme northeast of Vermont? Moose gangs?

The maps may not show the cause of crime, but they do show the cause of poverty: obviously, it's the equitable distribution of wealth. A low incidence of poverty is seen in places where the ratio of households with a $10,000 annual income to households with a $100,000 annual income is 1:4 or less. Of course, there may be no households with a $10,000 annual income in those places. One way to get rid of poverty is to price the poor out of the neighborhood.

Wealth is very evenly distributed in areas where there isn't any. These aren't necessarily the expected areas. Residents of the northern Plains states, thought to be rugged, turn out to be ragged. The struggling Rust Belt has little poverty and extensive concentrations of wealth. The booming Sun Belt and the vibrant Southwest encompass the majority of America's poor counties. The liberal Northeast (where poverty is blamed for bad behavior) and the conservative heartland (where bad behavior is blamed for poverty) have one thing in common: not too many poor. For all that's been said about the plight of farmers, the Farm Belt is doing okay. Maybe those Willie Nelson benefit concerts worked. The border with Mexico is understandably poor. But less understandably, so are long stretches of the border with Canada. We don't hear much about NAFTA anymore, do we?

The maps do not show, unfortunately, the cause of getting rich. Investment in common stock doesn't seem to explain it. Clusters of stock ownership are so widely and strangely scattered that one suspects the operation of a brokerage boiler room making random hard-sell phone solicitations. The salesmen seem to have particularly good sucker lists for North Carolina, Colorado, Idaho, Washington State, and Harney County, Oregon. But Californians, bemoaning the loss in value of their Silicon Valley dot-com shares, do not, in fact, seem to own many.

California is—in this as in other respects—a mixed-up state. There's considerable poverty in the north, the south, and the Central Valley, and great wealth along the coast and in the Sierra Nevada. The proximity of surplus to need does not result in philanthropy. The big shots aren't sharing.

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke is an Atlantic correspondent. Maps compiled by Nathan Littlefield and Marshall Poe.

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