Let’s Add Some Nuance to the ‘Two Americas’ Narrative

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With the election of Donald Trump, pundits and protesters alike have sliced the United States into two Americas: urban and rural, millennial and boomer, the haves and the have-nots, and the crowd favorite, red and blue.

But the data show a more complicated picture. Across many metrics, the U.S. isn’t one nation — and it’s not quite accurate to say it’s split into two, either. By looking at individual states through the lens of the Human Development Index — a kind of yardstick for measuring and ranking well-being in countries across the world — the U.S. looks more like many nations, all at different levels of development.

This distinction matters, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-director of Measure of America, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council, because having just two categories in a country this big isn’t useful for solving the problems that arise in people’s daily experiences. Two categories tends to lead to a black-and-white, us-versus-them mentality, she explained, whereas challenging this binary adds nuance to the conversation, which may in turn help lead to better solutions.

The HDI covers three factors of well-being: health, education, and income. Currently, the U.S. is ranked 10th out of 188 countries, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Science of Us worked with Measure of America to analyze health and education, two of the three factors that make up the HDI, for all 50 states and D.C. (Income is too difficult to compare internationally because many other countries provide more universal health care, relatively inexpensive college tuitions, and subsidized child care, according to Burd-Sharps. This means that incomes across the globe are typically much lower, so comparing those numbers to the states would be misleading.)

We found that although the U.S. is overall in the top ten for HDI, Americans across the country live with significantly different standards of well-being. For more context, we’ve paired each state with its closest corresponding country, as determined by the each separate metric in the HDI ranking.

Life Expectancy

Health is measured by life expectancy at birth, which itself represents the ability to “live a long and healthy life” and reflects a summary of pollution, nutrition, poverty, violence, and other life determinants, according to Measure of America’s methodology. Let’s look at the highest and lowest life expectancies, to give a clearer idea of the range we’re working with.

In 2014, the average American life expectancy was 79.3 years, with the highest in Hawaii and lowest in Mississippi. New York ranks third in the country, while Texas and Pennsylvania were the closest to the U.S. average.

Life expectancy by state

As a country, we’ve focused for the last decade on improving medicine and increasing access to doctors and health care, an important part of longer life expectancy, Burd-Sharps explained. But she added that another huge factor is the basic condition in which someone grows up and grows old — whether an environment has clean air, well-built sidewalks, opportunity for decent wages, safe places for kids to exercise, and options for healthy food. This also includes whether people feel like they are equal under the law, so they don’t have the “constant stress of racial profiling,” she said.

Mississippi, on par with Brazil in life expectancy at about 75 years, struggles with these conditions, she told Science of Us. In 2013, for example, Crossroads Resource Center, a nonprofit that works with communities to develop self-sufficiency and sustainable futures, conducted a study about Mississippi farmers, food workers, and consumers. Researchers Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg found that although the state enjoys a high demand for locally-produced food and abundance in land, many Mississippians don’t feel they can pay for high-quality food because of low incomes. (The median household income in Mississippi was $40,037 in 2015.) They also wrote that the state “lacks essential infrastructure that would support local food trade,” including packing materials and freezers to keep food fresh within facilities and during transport. Additionally, common foods enjoyed in Mississippi “are not as healthy as would be desired.” In 2014, Mississippi ranked second in the country for diabetes rate.

Things get even more complicated when you look at life expectancy by race. Nationwide, Asian-Americans have the highest life expectancy, while black Americans have the lowest. And although life expectancy has been increasing globally, it’s actually been decreasing for whites, particularly white males. In a 2015 study, researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton link these deaths to substance abuse, overdose, and suicide, also known as diseases of despair. The counties that tilted toward Trump were more likely to be suffering from those diseases.

The gaps are even more extreme when ethnicities are compared in different states. For example, the life expectancy for Asian-Americans in New Jersey was just under 90 in 2014, higher than Japan, while the life expectancy for Native Americans in South Dakota is reportedly 68, a two-decade gap.

Education

For Burd-Sharps, education matters for more than just getting a good job or paycheck. “It matters for the strength of your relationships, it matters for your kids’ outcomes, and it matters for happiness,” she says. “People with more education tend to have more options, and tend to find fewer doors closed to them, which contributes to more fulfilled lives.”

Education is measured by a combination of how many people are enrolled in school and the highest level of education they have completed. Today, more jobs tend to require a higher level of education — “knowledge jobs,” Burd-Sharps calls them. After the 2008 recession, more than 95 percent of jobs went to those with at least some college education, so we focused on the latter metric of higher education. Again, let’s look at the best and worst rates, just to get a sense of the range.

In 2014, the average rate of adults over 25 years old in the U.S. who earned at least a bachelor’s degree was 30.1 percent. Massachusetts had the highest rate of any state (D.C. had the highest in the country), while West Virginia had the lowest.

Rate of adults over 25 who have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree by state

Massachusetts has consistently benefited from state policies geared toward investing in higher education and resources for young people, Burd-Sharps said. On the other hand, per-pupil spending in West Virginia has been relatively low, and Republican legislative state officials recently proposed a cut in state funding for higher education by $50 million.

Higher education didn’t used to be necessary to get most jobs, Burd-Sharp says, but many traditional entry-level jobs have been replaced by machines or by lower-paid employees in other countries. West Virginia suffers from what some call a “brain drain,” a decrease in population as people leave for opportunities they can’t find in a state that some say hasn’t been able to foster a knowledge-based economy.

A Virtuous Cycle

Of course, health and education (along with income, the third part of HDI) are closely knit. A higher life expectancy can lead to a higher level of education completed which can lead to a better income which can then increase life expectancy — you get it.

Challenging the “Two Americas” narrative by looking at individual metrics can help us see people in every state along the spectrum of each well-being metric. Groups of people that aren’t lumped together in the typical binaries often have overlapping concerns in their daily experiences, and they can come together to think through strategies to better their situations. This perspective is obviously not going to solve everything, but recognizing the nuance is a good first step.

Let’s Add Some Nuance to the ‘Two Americas’ Narrative