Mitt Romney, presidential candidate, said in now-infamous comments that 47% of the American electorate is dependent on the federal government, that he will never be able to teach them to take personal responsibility for their lives, and that they are certain to vote for Barack Obama in November. He continues a tradition in his party that goes back at least three decades: building political campaigns around the proposition that folks in the heartland exhibit the American virtues of self sufficiency and personal responsibility and the implication that other, more urban, regions display decadent social values and dependency on government.
It is a good general rule to judge individuals on their own merits and not on the supposed attributes of the racial, socioeconomic or geographic groups to which they belong. Cultural generalizations are dangerous. But since questions have been raised, the fearless social scientist will not shrink from confronting them. Are residents of “red states,” who tend to vote Republican, indeed more likely to take responsibility for their personal behavior than those who live in “blue states” and tend to vote Democratic?
Inspired by the role that religion plays in the red-state view of the world, I will organize the investigation in terms of the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Wrath, and so on. We will see that measures of these “sins,” state-by-state, bear a statistical relationship with voting patterns – but not the relationship that many assume. (For data sources and econometric details, see the statistical appendix at my website.)
The red states receive more federal spending, relative to taxes, than the blue states, as I wrote in a 2010 blog post. Updated data show that the pattern continues. Those who claim to be fiscally conservative are the ones who in truth tend to feed the most voraciously at the federal trough. Alaskans are the most dependent on the federal government, receiving $7,448 in spending (net of taxes) per capita. New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, Minnesota and Illinois are the biggest net givers. Regarding Romney’s specific “47%” allegation: the states with high percentages of people who pay no income tax tend to vote Republican, not Democratic.
Figure 1 shows on the horizontal axis each state’s receipt of spending by the federal government, net of tax payments, per capita. The vertical axis shows the ratio of Democratic to Republican votes state by state, in the last three presidential elections. The red states (low in the graph) tend to be on the receiving end (high spending). The blue states (high in the graph) constitute a majority of the ones that foot the bill (positive contributions to the nationwide kitty). The relationship is highly significant statistically.
Figure 1: Federal Spending Received minus Taxes Paid, among Blue vs. Red States
(Average of votes in 2000, 2004 and 2008 presidential elections) Click here for larger image.
States where residents suffer more from obesity, in part because they have worse eating habits, tend to vote Republican, as I showed in a blog post last June. To illustrate, a mere 1 percentage point decrease in a state’s obesity rate is associated on average with an estimated increase in the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters from 1.00 to 1.07. The relationship is highly significant statistically. (Figure 2.)
States where residents get less physical exercise tend to vote Republican. (Figure 10d in appendix.) The relationship is highly significant statistically. Figure 3 combines physical exercise and lack of obesity into a single index of physical fitness.
In his recent book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray argues that those who live in the “super-zip codes” – the areas with high education levels, like Belmont, Massachusetts - have maintained traditional American values of hard work, while those who live elsewhere show “crashing” rates of industriousness. He writes that those who live in areas with less education have been leaving the labor force for years, often falsely claiming disability. They “goof off,” “sleeping and watching television” (p.180-181). Those that remain employed have reduced the length of their work-week and their dedication to their jobs, at the same time that those living in the super-zip codes have increased theirs (p.176-77). Some academic researchers and news media fear accusations of liberal bias if they talk about such things. AEI scholar Murray may be immune from this fear: he is well-known as a conservative/libertarian whose earlier book The Bell Curve dealt with black-white differences in test achievement. (The statistics in his recent book look at whites alone, so as to control for race.)
Sex is interesting. Red states residents buy more online adult entertainment, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Benjamin Edelman. Notwithstanding proclamations about the importance of pre-marital chastity, evidence suggests that young people in red states do have sex before marriage. It is less likely to be safe sex than among those in blue states. States that vote Republican have higher birth rates among 15-17-year-old girls, as Figure 4 shows. Again, the difference is highly significant statistically. They also have higher rates of the sexually-transmitted disease Chlamydia . (This difference, unlike the others, is not statistically significant at the aggregate state level; but it is when combined into an overall measure of unsafe sex.)
Apparently the gap between what they say and what they do is particularly wide for teen-agers who describe themselves as evangelical Christians. According to research by Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin, white evangelical adolescents usually state a belief in pre-marital abstinence — 74 per cent — but in fact are surprisingly active sexually, compared to mainline Protestants and Jews who do not tend to state such a belief. When the evangelicals do engage in sex, they are less likely to use protection than others. The gap between word and deed is strikingly high for the millions of teenagers who take a formal pledge to remain celibate until marriage, typically in a ring ceremony, according to a New Yorker article by Margaret Talbott (“Red Sex, Blue Sex“). The majority of them, though holding out for awhile, “end up having sex before marriage, and not usually with their future spouse.” Two other sociologists, Peter Bearman (Columbia University) and Hannah Bruckner (Yale) find a positive correlation between the abstinence pledge and Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD). Pledgers are less likely to use a condom if and when they first have sex and overall are slightly more likely to contract a STD. (Under George W. Bush, the federal government subsidized such abstinence pledge program despite their questionable effectiveness.)
Nobody is surprised to hear that red states have higher rates of gun ownership than blue states. But there is an important distinction between those who use guns responsibly and those who do not. The data show that ¾ of the states with high rates of firearms assaults vote Republican. (Figure 5.) The regression is statistically significant.
People who drink too much endanger themselves and endanger others as well. You guessed it: States with high rates of fatal accidents from drunk driving tend to vote Republican (Figure 6). Statistically significant.
Many of the Seven Deadly Sins can indeed be deadly. It is particularly striking that the states where the most residents exhibit behavior that endangers their health and that of others – with many of these unhealthy people later free-riding on their fellow citizens when they show up uninsured in the hospital emergency room – are also the states where congressmen tended to vote against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2010. This risky behavior includes poor physical fitness (as measured by rates of obesity, lack of exercise, and poor diet), careless sexual behavior (as measured by rates of teen pregnancy and Chlamydia), smoking, drunk-driving (as reflected in fatalities) and irresponsible use of guns (as reflected in armed assaults).
Each obese American incurs medical costs 42% higher than those of normal weight. Often others are stuck with the bill, if the patient has not been able to get health insurance because of a weight problem. These people are free-riders on the health care system even if they don’t want to be. The individual mandate of Obamacare was designed to fix this free-riding problem and re-establish personal responsibility. Yet congressmen in states with high rates of obesity or other health risk factors voted against the legislation. (See my blogpost or an op-ed on Obamacare for the evidence.)
Utah is the most conspicuous outlier in most of these relationships. It has a high population of Mormons. Apparently they follow the strictures of their religion more closely than those of other religious denominations. (Could this be why evangelicals tend to resent Mormons so much, according to opinion polls?) But Utah notwithstanding, the relationships hold on average.
The five most “red” states are Wyoming, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, and Alaska. The five most “blue” are New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Hawaii. The average score of the five reddest states is worse in each category than the average score of the five bluest states: more obesity, smoking, Chlamydia, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving fatalities, and firearms assaults. In the latter three of those measures, the “reckless” shares of the population are almost twice as high among the first five states as among the last five. While we are at it, we might as well acknowledge that the red state populations also tend to be less educated and more prone to divorce.
There you have it, the surprising statistics. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
[This article draws in part on an op-ed concerning Obamacare in the Christian Science Monitor and another concerning Romney's "47%" remarks at Project Syndicate. VoxEU also has a version. Details on data and computations are available in a posted statistical appendix.]