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
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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.

The file is 1.1 MB in size and will open in a new browser window.

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.

The big shots aren't sharing anywhere. The eastern rich Democrats and the western rich Republicans seem to agree that charity should come from somewhere other than them—maybe taxes and God, respectively.

In California everybody is going to be a big shot someday, so the poor are stingy too. Elsewhere the pattern of giving follows the pattern of not having much to give. This is especially true in the Appalachians, the Old South, and the northern Rockies and Great Plains. Examples of loving-kindness are also found in the Maine backwoods and in the more remote badlands of Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Here innately good human beings are living, it should be noted, nowhere near the kind of people who think human beings are innately good.

There is an odd strip of poverty, crime, and generosity along the lower Mississippi River. It could be homage to Huck and Jim, or it could be an alluvial deposit from the Midwest, where those things have eroded.

The prevalence of mobile homes does not correspond with the prevalence of poverty, or with much of anything else. All that can be confidently said about America's mobile homes is that they are massed in places where you wouldn't want to be in one. Florida's mobile homes lie athwart the path of hurricanes. Georgia's are in the way of tornadoes. The mobile homes of New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada sit baking in the sun, cooking whoever's inside. An important division in America is one that runs along the lines of common sense.

An even more important division is marriage. Nowhere is America more fully diverse, more thoroughly multicultural, than in a household containing a husband and a wife. The nation appears to have a stiff, straight Spousal Spine from the Canadian border to the boot tip of Texas. Upper midwesterners, too, are more likely to be married than divorced. So are the residents of the eastern foothills of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Marriage obtains in Utah and southern Idaho (unless census takers were confused by polygamy miscounts). And, surprisingly, those racy cosmopolitans from New York City to Washington, D.C., are married as well. But maybe for the fourth or fifth time.

The maps dispel any notion that divorce is urban or urbane. It may be so along the Divorce Coasts of Florida and the Pacific. But divorce is also common in the sticks—northern New England, the Deep South, eastern Oklahoma, the Southwest, the southern Midwest, and the whole non-Mormon portion of the western mountains and deserts.

Spouses who leave home usually don't get far—although they do clear out of Mississippi. Otherwise the "Marital Status" and "Prevalence of the Divorced" maps show very similar patterns. But certain specific regions do seem to be magnets for the re-singled. Some locales make a kind of sense as places to start over: Las Vegas, northern California, Taos. Others make no sense. Bad news for seekers of child-support payments: you may have to go looking for your former mates deep in the Everglades; in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico; in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands; or in a forbidding strip of cactus and tumbleweed between Fort Rock, Oregon, and Nevada's Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range. It's a sad commentary on what happens to Americans when they don't have someone with whom to differ at home.

People who have stayed where they were born and people who have moved on should be very different. But the maps don't show that clearly. Instead what we see is that California is no longer the Promised Land. Americans are moving to Nevada, Florida, Wyoming, and New Hampshire. Once Americans sought the good life. Now they seek Keno parlors, tickets to see Wayne Newton, jobs in mouse suits, bad weather, and black flies.

It could be that international travel is a better gauge of American dissimilarities. East and West Coast culturati travel often. So do the sophisticates of the Minneapolis area, when they're not listening to Garrison Keillor lie about Lake Wobegon crime statistics. But it turns out that the continental Americans who do the most foreign travel reside in the mountains of central Montana and in the Snake River region of eastern Washington State. A guess is that these people go to Helena and Spokane and find things there "pretty foreign."

The maps offer various mysteries and conundrums about how America is divided. But when all the maps are considered together, one thing is made plain. There is a core of virtue in America, a nucleus of rectitude, a Righteous Region. Crime is low. Marriages are sound. People stay home. They donate to charities. And their neighbors are as well off as they are. This is in North Dakota, South Dakota, and northern Nebraska. The Righteous Region isn't very diverse. And it certainly isn't divisive. Indeed, the Americans in the rest of the country are all agreed that they wouldn't want to live there.

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