© Josh Sager – March 2014
As Justice Brandeis said, the individual states are laboratories of democratic policy. Instead of doing everything at the federal level and trying to pass standardized policies over diverse populations from different states, our system of government allows states wide latitude to implement their own ideas. Sometimes, these ideas travel to other states or the federal legislature (ex. Massachusetts’s RomneyCare was reborn as the federal ObamaCare) and sometimes they die because they are ineffective.
In this article, I will present many maps, detailing widespread trends including everything from education and health to income equality and happiness. These maps will draw a clear and distinct pattern, where states with conservative leanings tend to have poorer societal outcomes and states with more progressive leanings tend to have better policy outcomes.
…but first, we need to identify conservative and progressive leaning areas.
Before looking at the coming maps, make sure to note the general distributions of political power shown in the previous map: The conservatives have an iron grip on the deep south, Midwest, and mountainous northwest, while the progressives have control over the northeast and west coast; the southwest tends to swing right, while the northern Midwest and Great Lakes region have recently begun to swing left.
In the following maps, I will present you a color-coded view of the United States, illustrating patterns in health, education, and economic statistics.
The Human Development Index
The first map is color-coded based on a meta-measure of a society called the “human development index.” This index was created by the Social Science Research Council as a composite measure of the health, education and income levels within each state—the higher the number (or darker-colored the state on the map), the more developed the state.
Map created by the Measure of America project, using 2010 and 2011 data
If you want to explore the interactive version of this map, you can follow this link: https://www.measureofamerica.org/maps/
As this map clearly shows, the most developed states are clustered in the northeast, around the great lakes, and on the west coast, while the least developed states in our country are almost exclusively in the Deep South and Appalachia.
By comparing this map with the partisan power map at the beginning of this article, you will see a remarkable correlation between conservative power and stunted social development. If you consolidate the two lowest categories on this map, you will have with an area that includes virtually every conservative stronghold in the south and mountainous northwest (except Arizona). Similarly, if you take the two highest categories in this map, you end up with a map that is almost exclusively filled with states which are progressive or progressive-leaning (the exceptions being Arizona and Alaska).
Correlation is not causation, but this pattern is certainly striking. Given this data, it appears that one of two patterns is occurring: either conservative governance stunts social development or societies with lower levels of social development tend to elect conservatives.
Federal Taxes/Aid Comparison:
If the Republican Party is against one thing, it is welfare and the redistribution of wealth—at least, that is what they say on the campaign trail. In reality, conservative states tend to be the largest recipients of federal tax dollars, while more progressive states tend to contribute the most to the federal coffers.
Map Created by the Tax Foundation, using 2008 data
As the previous map demonstrates, red state residents are far more likely to have no federal tax liability than residents of blue states—they simply don’t make enough money to be paying those taxes. This indicates that red state residents are the last people who should complain about federal tax burdens, as they are the people who tend to not to pay those types of tax (a majority of their tax burden is state and local).
Color coding based upon amount of money received from the federal government in benefits or business for every $1 in tax revenue (red = net gain, blue = net loss)
Map created by Business Insider Online, using IRS data
As this map illustrates, red states are deeply dependent upon the federal government for money while blue states tend to pay more taxes than they receive in benefits. Conservative regions like the Deep South, Midwest, Southwest, and mountainous northwest tend to take more in federal dollars than they pay into the federal government through taxes. Conversely, the blue areas like the northeastern coastline and parts of the Midwest tend to receive less money than they pay in. There are certainly exceptions to this trend (ex. Texas has vast oil wealth, which boosts its input into the federal tax pool, while Maine is a progressive-leaning state which takes a lot of federal tax dollars), but this doesn’t invalidate the greater pattern.
Indeed, as politifact confirms, 28 out of the 32 states which take more money from the federal government than they contribute in taxes are conservative, while 14 out of the 18 states which contribute more than they receive are Democratic.
In the language of the right wing, this pattern means that red states are “takers” while the blue states are “makers.”
Map created by The Economist, using Census data from 1990, 2000, and 2010
As this map illustrates, the red state federal money dependency is a long-term trend rather than an acute situation brought on by an economic crash or natural disaster (looking at short-term data runs the risk of including events like Superstorm Sandy or Katrina that would skew the data with massive and temporary aid money)
As you can see in the previous map, American poverty is concentrated in the south, from Arizona all the way to the East Coast; additionally, Michigan, West Virginia and Kentucky are high-poverty states.
With the exceptions of Michigan and New Mexico, these states are exclusively conservative-leaning. Conversely, on average, more progressive states—particularly in the northeast—tend to be the most well off states in our nation
When looking at this pattern, it is important to note that there are city level objections that conservatives raise when presented with this data. They argue that poverty is concentrated urban areas of their states that tend to vote Democratic, thus the poverty isn’t reflective of the conservative mindset. Put simply, this argument is wrong for the simple fact that state governance is a major factor that helps determine the economic health of the entire state population. Red states tend to be hostile to unions, have low minimum wages, and spend less on infrastructure investment, creating a ripple effect into rural democratic strongholds that reduces the economic welfare of those living there.
As you can see in the above map, income mobility and the ability to “work your way up” (or down) is tied to the state in which you are living. All but one (Utah) of the states which have higher than average upward income mobility rates lean progressive, while all of the states with low upward income mobility rates lean conservative.
This suggests that something about conservative culture, economics or social policies (ex. union busting, low minimum wage, poor regulations, low education investment, etc.) retards the ability of Americans to advance up the social ladder.
High School Graduation
Map created by the Rural Assistance Center, using Census data
As is illustrated in the previous map, there are wide disparities in high school graduation rates, both on state and regional levels. For the most part, the northern United States has higher graduation rates, while the southern United States has lower graduation rates.
Unlike with economic issues, state-level graduation rates do not correlate purely along partisan lines—the left-leaning northeast, great lakes, and west coast regions are joined by the more conservative mountainous Midwest and plains states in the highest levels of graduation.
That said, on average, left leaning states tended to have far higher levels of high school graduation than right leaning states. The Deep South bastion of conservative governance is near-universally trailing the rest of the country, while the progressive northeast is leading the country (on average, the Rocky Mountain states have higher graduation rates, but they also have far lower populations).
The disparity in high school graduation rates between the south and the north is not simply broken down into any one causal relationship. Educational achievement is influenced by a complex mix of schooling, culture, and economic wellbeing (ex. students in poor areas tend to have less access to quality schooling and extra help than residents of rich areas), thus it is specious to say that simply throwing money into an educational system will produce good results.
However, as you can see in the following maps detailing spending per student and average teacher pay, the amount of investment that a state puts into their educational system does have an effect on graduation rates.
Map created by NPR using 2010 census data
Map created by the Washington Post, using 2010 census and IRS data
As a general trend, states in the north spend more money on educating their students while southern states spend less—this trend largely parallels the trend in graduation rates. In short, the progressive ideal of investing in education is more likely to result in educational achievement than the conservative ideal of cutting taxes and social spending.
Map created by the New York Times, using data from the American Civil Liberties Union
In addition to having lower levels of educational achievement, right-leaning states in the south and Midwest account for virtually all instances of corporal punishment (hitting students) in the United States—this is simply because these states are the ones that have refused to ban the practices.
Healthy years of life beyond age 65
As the previous map illustrates, the right wing’s southern stronghold is composed of states that have, far and away, the worst life expectancies in the United States. This isn’t a purely a partisan issue, and involves a mixture of culture and bad policy.
The south is home to extreme poverty, a lack of accessible health care (ex. Texas leads the nation with 25% uninsurance), lax worker/environmental protections, and a culture that consumes massive amounts of fatty fried foods. These factors create a perfect storm of bad health that severely erodes the life expectancy of huge portions of the southern population.
Given the lower life expectancies in the south, the trend in the following map, illustrating state-level death rates, is unsurprising.
As this map clearly shows, conservative southern states tend to have far higher death rates than more liberal areas. In fact, virtually every state with a higher than average death rate is either solidly right wing or leaning right (the exceptions being Ohio and Washington D.C).
Obesity, Diabetes, Stroke, and Heart Disease:
One of the primary reasons why the south has a lower life expectancy than the rest of the United States is that its people suffer from a variety of chronic illnesses. Rates of obesity, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease are far higher in these states than the national average, and people have often lacked the ability to access care.
The following map gives an overview of preventable deaths from medical conditions, color-coded by state.
When broken down into individual disease rates, the pattern of the above map is maintained. The following four maps give an illustration of the geographic distribution of obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
Maps created by Harvard University, using CDC health data
Maps created by the CDC, using 2010 data from the census and National Vital Statistics System
In effect, the south is suffering from a series of disease clusters that steal years of life from huge portions of their population.
Given the lower life expectancies and higher prevalence of chronic diseases in conservative states when compared to progressive state, it is unsurprising that there are similar disparities in the quality/accessibility of health care.
Map created by the Commonwealth Fund using 2014 data
As you can see in the previous map, the health care systems of the Deep South and southwest are the worst in the nation, while those in the northeast and north-central regions are the best. This defies a purely partisan divide (ex. a lot of rural states suffer from low hospital accessibility), but the fact remains that the most conservative states in the nation tend to have the worst health care systems. This lack of health care is a particular problem for the south because, as previously described, it is the site of such an epidemic of chronic and life-threatening disorders.
Unfortunately the health care systems of many conservative states appears unlikely to improve in the short term as, the conservative hatred for the Affordable Care Act has led numerous state governors to reject an expansion of Medicaid. This expansion would allow the poorest (and often sickest) residents of those states to access health care and the refusal to expand healthcare is estimated to risk thousands of avoidable premature deaths every year.
Map created by Avalare State Reform Insights
Teen Birth Rates
Right wing politicians tend to unite against birth control and abortion, while promoting abstinence-only sex education. Unfortunately, abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, and because there is little access to reliable birth control for many individuals, states that are run by conservatives tend to have massive teen pregnancy problems.
Map created by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute
The previous map illustrates teen birth rates for teenagers aged 15 to 19. The obvious pattern is that conservative southern states have far higher teen pregnancy rates, while northern states, particularly in the progressive northeast, have far lower teen pregnancy rates.
This pattern becomes even more extreme in the following map, which looks at teen pregnancy rates for children aged 10 to 14.
Map Created by Zara Matheson, of the Martin Prosperity Institute
Early teen pregnancy is a virtual non-issue for the north, but is a serious problem for the south. Over 1% of births in the state of Mississippi—the most conservative state in the nation—are from children between the ages of 10 and 14. This incredibly high teen birth rate is a massive problem, not only for the children, who often suffer from health consequences, but also for th mothers, who often have to drop out of school).
The American right wing has long been allied with a coalition of Christian religious organizations. Originally, these organizations were mobilized in opposition to the school desegregation movement, but they shifted to focus on restricting abortion in the late 20th Century and, more recently, to fighting advances in gay rights.
Given this alliance, it makes sense that there would be a correlation between the religiosity of a region and the likelihood that they would vote conservative (most highly religious Americans are Christians).
As you can see with the previous map, the right wing southern block is in thrall to religious adherence (mostly Evangelical and Baptist Christianity, with a Mormon outpost in Utah) to a degree not seen in any more progressive state. This isn’t to say that progressive states are secular, merely that their residents are, on average, less extreme in their religious adherence than residents of conservative states.
As the following map demonstrates, conservative states with weak gun control regimes tend to have significantly higher rates of gun homicide than progressive states. All of the most dangerous states in terms of gun violence are controlled by conservatives, with the exception of Colorado.
…and the conservative gun problem isn’t just contained within the borders of their states. As the following map shows, many guns used in crimes in progressive-leaning states with strong gun control regimes were trafficked from conservative states with weak gun control regimes.
As the following map illustrates, conservative states—particularly in the south—have significantly higher rates of incarceration than progressive state. Many of these incarcerated Americans are in jail for non-violent crimes, including millions of Americans who are simply non-dealers in jail for drug possession.
The reason that conservatives states tend to imprison more people is a combination of the right wing attraction to “hard on crime” policies, racially discriminatory policing, and the prevalence of poverty in those states.
When we look at all of these maps in totality, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that American conservatism is correlated with a less developed society. On average, states which are controlled by conservatives have poorer, sicker, and less educated populations than more progressive states; additionally, these states tend to have higher incarceration and unwanted pregnancy rates.
While there is a legitimate argument about the direction of correlation in this pattern—does conservatism stunt development or are stunted societies attracted to conservatism—this doesn’t actually affect the greater political narrative. If conservatism actively stunts society, it should be disregarded out of hand, while, if conservatism is just attractive to residents in stunted societies due to propaganda or social identification (ex. religious adherence), then it is merely ineffective in improving society. Either way, it would be foolish to want to expand such an ideology to more states or even to the federal government.
If you want to model your federal government on a state-level policy laboratory, what could possibly make you choose one of the conservative models over one of the progressive models (ex. picking the Mississippi education model over the Massachusetts one)? The weight of the evidence shows that, on average, conservative states not only have worse living standards than more progressive states, but are actually having their living standards artificially inflated with money redistributed from states which pay more to the federal treasury than the pay in.