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Tom Baxter

The State of the States, Part 2

By Tom Baxter

The state of the state, Gov. Nathan Deal said last week, is “excellent.” Depends how you size it up.

Last week, as a teaser to tomorrow night’s State of the Union message, Politico  dusted off an idea originated by H.L. Mencken and Charles Angoff back in 1931, and produced a ranking of the states based on 14 different rankings of things like life expectancy, graduation rates, crime rates and so forth.

The bad news: Georgia ranked 42nd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The good news: in 1931, we were 46th.

Perhaps we could quibble. We’re only 36th, after all, in per capita wealth, and we have the 30th best crime rate. But a glance up and down the 14 indicators of a state’s real health makes it seem pointless. It might be a little farther up or down the list, but Georgia falls well within the bottom half of all of them.

Very little of this is the fault of anyone in office today. Although Politico used more contemporary measures, such as obesity rates, its results were strikingly like those published in the American Mercury in 1931. In that year, Massachusetts was ranked first. This year New Hampshire, which is where Massachusetts moved, holds the top ranking. Mississippi ranked 49th then; with two more states added, it ranks 51st today.

The District of Columbia saw by far the longest fall, from 6th in 1931 to 47th today, but that suggests there was a lot of D.C. they just weren’t counting back then. It’s the rare exception: overall, the two lists suggest little change among the states. Florida ranked 37th in 1931. After nine decades of as much economic and demographic change as any state in the nation, Florida ranks 38th this year.

Mencken, in a more politically incorrect age, was far more pointed about the presence at the bottom of the pile of the southern states, with their “hordes of barbaric peasants.” If today’s language is more polite, this ranking is confirmation that the problems of the 19th Century still haunt us in the 21st.

To put all this in perspective, there are several other surveys we can turn to, starting with the Center for Public Integrity’s ranking of the nation’s most corrupt states, based on the laxity of their ethics laws, the number of public officials convicted and other factors. Here we do even worse, with an F grade. But note that last-place Mississippi gets a C+ in this grading, while first-place New Hampshire gets a D. Ethics may be a good thing, but it doesn’t correlate as easily as life expectancy and poverty rates.

A recent Washington Post feature with maps showing how the states rank in five categories of spending is also helpful, but beware of the impression that spending a high percentage of a state budget on education — we’re right behind Indiana, with 45.7 percent — is necessarily a sign of progress. It can simply be a reflection of how little the state is spending on other things.

Alabama’s continuing struggles were clearly on the mind of Gov. Robert Bentley when he began this year’s State of the State speech with a reference to Wilcox County, the poorest in the nation. He was unflinching in his appraisal of the state’s problems, as well as his refusal to accept the federal Medicaid expansion.

“We will never see an end to the plague of poverty by offering a deeper dependence on a flawed government system. We will never help our poorest citizens, or our future generations by casting over them the net of federal government giveaway programs,” Bentley said.

In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley sounded a similar tone of defiance.

“It  will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard me speak or has watched this administration, that it is my firm belief that the federal government causes far more harm to South Carolina than good,” in words that must have caused the late Mendel Rivers to gulp in his grave.

Alabama ranks 47th in the new ranking, and South Carolina 45th.

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.


1 Comment

  1. Adam Bruns January 28, 2014 10:04 am

    Tom, thanks for this gloss of the Politico, Post and CPI rankings. Still shocking to know and understand that lynchings were one of the rankings criteria for Mencken and Co. For another perspective, Site Selection has been publishing a “State of the States” report each January for the past five years, including this iteration in our 60th anniversary issue this month … see how the states mentioned above do according to some other yardsticks: http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2014/jan/states.cfm
    Adam Bruns, managing editor, Site Selection magazine, Peachtree Corners, GAReport


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