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Obsessions of Inequality

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, authors of “Geographies of Opportunity,” provide a state-by-state and congressional district-by-congressional district measurement of “well-being” across the United States. Overall, Virginia fares reasonably well in the report, scoring 11th overall. Well-being is determined by a set of measures for life expectancy, education and median income. But state averages can mask a lot. Indeed, Virginia stands out for the inequality of income and well-being inside its borders.

The premise of the report is that there other ways to measure progress than by the usual metrics of economic growth. The study draws upon the United Nation’s Human Development Index to measure three “fundamental human dimensions” — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. “There is a broad consensus that these three capabilities are essential building blocks for a life of value, freedom and dignity.”

The Index score for the United States as a whole is 5.06. Connecticut is the best off, with an index of 6.17, and Virginia comes in at 11th at 5.47. Mississippi (no surprise) comes in last at 3.81. (Play with the data here.)

Burd-Sharps and Lewis also break down the numbers by congressional district. Virginia has three of the top 20 districts in the nation ranked by well-being — the 8th (Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax), the 10th (Manassas to Winchester), and the 11th (Reston to Quantico). And it has one of the poorest — the 9th, in the far Southwest.

OK, what does all this tell us? I’m really not sure. Other than obsessing about what we all know to be true — there are huge wealth gaps in the United States — the study doesn’t tell us much. Gee, there’s a link between education level and health? Who would have figured? And there’s a link between income and health, too? Gosh, tell me more.

In a sidebar, the study notes how the ethnically pluralistic residents of the 8th district in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., live eight years longer than the predominantly white residents living in the isolated mountains of Southwest Virginia. Longevity in affluent U.S. congressional districts exceeds that of Japan. Longevity in the poorest districts, like the 9th, compares to Gaza and the West Bank.

So, what do we do about it? Improving human development outcomes in Appalachia, the authors opine, “requires greater investment in peoples’ capabilities to thrive in the new economy” — specifically, a high-quality pre-school experience.

But elsewhere we read that the higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer the district’s life expectancy. In sunny California, there is a “surprising” 3.2-year life expectancy gap in favor of foreign-born Latinos as compared to their U.S.-born counterparts. Surprising — really? It’s only surprising if you think that the only meaningful determinants of public health are education and income levels, and that culture has nothing to do with it. As it turns out, the longer poor Latinos live in the U.S. and adopt fast food-heavy diets, the greater their risk of obesity-related illnesses.

Now that would have been an interesting angle to pursue. When affluent populations have better health outcomes than poor populations, the assumption is that the difference can be attributed to superior access to health care. Surely some of it is. But how much is due to different diets and lifestyles? Are there strategies that attack health problems more directly than, say, by increasing spending on pre-K?

Another thing that irritated me was the failure to adjust incomes for cost of living. If the purpose is to compare well-being, the cost of living is a major consideration. The authors contrast Connecticut and Wyoming, states with similar GDPs per capita, in the $65,000 to $68,000 range. “Does this mean that the people living in these two states enjoy similar levels of health, education and living standards?” the authors ask. “It does not. Connecticut residents, on average, can expect to outlive their western compatriots by nearly two and a half years, are 40 percent more likely to have bachelor’s degrees, and typically earn $6,000 more per year.”

Here’s what the study doesn’t bother to tell you. According to CNN Money’s cost of living calculator, earning $50,000 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is the equivalent of earning $64,900 in Hartford or $76,600 in New Haven. Incomes are lower? Yes, but the dollar stretches 30% to 50% further. The question I would ask is this: How is it that the residents of Wyoming, who aren’t nearly as well educated as the residents of Connecticut, manage to earn higher incomes on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis?

As an aside, let’s talk about income disparities within congressional districts. Which state do you think has greater disparities of vast wealth and poverty in close proximity — Wyoming, a state of cowboys and coal miners, of Connecticut, a state of inner-city poor and hedge-fund billionaires?

For a document entitled, “Geographies of Opportunity,” this study has almost nothing to say about the economics of opportunity. It has nothing to say about strategies that poor people can pursue to lift themselves out of poverty or lead healthier lives. All recommendations call for an activist and interventionist government. Promote health by cracking down on smoking. Regulate food advertising. Invest public dollars in recreational facilities and (a remedy I actually agree with) in more walkable neighborhoods. Expand pre-school programs. Keep teens in high school until they graduate. Raise the minimum wage. The list goes on with a host of suggestions that have absolutely nothing to do with the data presented. As for the one sure-fire way to wage raises for the poor — create conditions conducive to economic growth so that companies hire more workers, drive down unemployment and bid up wages — it doesn’t warrant a mention.

The numbers in this study are potentially useful. The analysis and recommendations are not.

(This article first appeared in Bacon’s Rebellion on April 24, 2014)

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