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Columns Tom Baxter

Are we so bad, after all? What lists can tell us and what they can’t

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

What’s more fun, journalistically, than a list? While we’re waiting for qualifying week to end here in Georgia, and fretting over our supplies of hand sanitizer, let’s take a brief dive into how lists get made, and what they really tell us about ourselves.

Local media took some notice recently when a survey identified Georgia as the 5th most sinful state in the nation, only a little farther from perdition than Florida (No. 3). This finding came from WalletHub, a personal finance website which produces a steady diet of lists, some of them very serious and some a little whimsical.

To arrive at this finding, WalletHub used an impressive array of statistical sources to come up with ways to measure each of the seven deadly sins. Lust, for instance, is the combined ranking of the states by teen birth rate, Google searches for “XXX Entertainment,” average time spent on adult entertainment sites, and persons arrested for prostitution and commercialized vice, per capita.

When you break it down that way, we don’t seem so far from redemption, certainly not four slots back from Nevada. We rank all the way back at 45th for the sin of greed, which is casinos per capita, gambling arrests per capita, charitable donations as a share of income, share of the population with gambling disorders and persons arrested for embezzlement per capita. (Needless to say, with casino bills popping up every year or so, our strongest claim to virtue hangs by a legislative thread.)

We’re not the worst in terms of gluttony (29th) or wrath (14th), but we continue falling through vanity (11th) and lust (6th). What really dooms us is envy, or as WalletHub calls it, jealousy. That category is measured by thefts per capita, identity theft complaints per capita and fraud complaints per capita. When it’s measured that way, we’re No. 1 in envy.

By now the thought is likely to have struck you that there are many other ways that our sins could have been counted. That’s an important thing to remember about all lists. Before you decide if you believe them, check the methodology to see what assumptions have been made.

Lists such as these are a lot like those themed stock funds that seek to position investors for hypothetical developments like a war in the Middle East or a cancer cure. It’s hard to systematize intuition. We’re all the prisoners of what we can count, and the victims, often, of what we can’t.

This is not to say we can’t learn a lot from the various lists and rankings which seem increasingly numerous. A case in point is another recent WalletHub ranking of how well people manage their money in more than 2,500 U.S. cities. It uses 10 different metrics to establish this, including foreclosure rate, adults with a recent bankruptcy, median credit score and the ratio of auto loan debt to income.

It shouldn’t be surprising that affluent communities like Cupertino, Calif., Scarsdale, N.Y. and Princeton, N.J. top this very long list. It’s much easier to manage your finances, when you’ve got the finances.

You might expect that a lot of struggling rural towns and Rust Belt cities would populate the bottom half of the list. Many do, but this isn’t a consistent pattern. What is surprising — even jarring when you think about it — is that 10 of the 25 cities ranked the very worst at money management are in Georgia.

Nor do these Georgia cities fit any stereotypes you might have. It’s hard to see what they all have in common, other than a Georgia zip code and a lot of tapped-out credit cards and personal debt. They are spread all over the state: Hephzibah, Cordele, Riverdale, Austell, Union City, Jonesboro. At the very bottom of the list, numbers 2569 through 2972, respectively, are Hinesville, Hampton, Lithonia and Fairburn.

One clear pattern is that several of these cities are part of exurban or suburban Atlanta. There are a lot of people in these counties who are trying to make it up the economic ladder, who struggle to make their mortgages and car payments every month but prize what these things give them. This ranking of money management skill may inadvertently been a measure of ambition — which there clearly is a lot of around Atlanta — and the true degree to which ambition is currently being rewarded.

Featured Image: The WalletHub

Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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