Making a Social Atlas

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An atlas of the U.S. is a challenge, because the spaces involved are not always easy to represent.
Doug Henwood

Issue #17, November 1994


I wish I could say I conceived of The State of the U.S.A. as a way of being subtly, almost imperceptibly, subversive; to introduce into the mainstream an analysis of hierarchy through representations of space; and to seduce nonreaders to that hidden agenda by using slick graphics and pungent captions rather than long, slow-moving paragraphs. I could say that, I suppose, but it wouldn't be true.

Fact is, the project dropped in my lap with a call from an agent who knew me through a Nation magazine connection, who was approached by the London-based packager of a whole series of social atlases. The most famous in the series is The New State of the World, by Michael Kidron and Ronald Seagal, which has sold half a million copies worldwide and is going into its fifth edition. Visions of wealth and fame filled my head, so used to the impoverished obscurity that is the lot of the radical journalist these days.

Complexities

I'd studied my David Harvey; I knew that social relations play themselves out in space. But an atlas of the U.S. is a challenge, because the spaces involved are not always easy to represent. A global atlas easily conveys stark contrasts: Japan, with a per capita income of $28,190 per year, where people can expect to live 79 years, and where an immeasurably small number of women are illiterate is a social world apart from even a fellow Asian country like India, with an income of $310, a life expectancy of 61 years, and a female illiteracy rate of 66%. Even a First World nation like Britain exhibits a sharp geographical divide between north and south, between Greater London and the rest of the country. But in the U.S., social geography is much more nuanced.

Connecticut's average income of $23,776 in 1993 is almost 75% higher than Mississippi's $13,631. But that difference between two near-adjoining neighborhoods in Manhattan makes that gap seem trivial: the Upper East Side, home of the Metropolitan Museum and a good bit of the national ruling class, enjoys an average income over seven times that of Central Harlem ($94,387 vs. $12,839 in 1990 — per household, unlike the state data, which is per person).

Capturing some of these contrasts would have required mapping at the county, rather than state level — and even then, lots of city/suburb and town/sticks detail would have been lost. But since there are over 3,000 counties in the U.S., it would have taken much more time, money, and staff to make the maps.

Another challenge was the remarkable volatility of life in the U.S. Regions, states, cities, and neighborhoods rise and fall with remarkable suddenness. The 1970s saw the ascent of the Sunbelt, a region that was essentially a giant inflation hedge, thanks to its oil, gold, and raw land; but as the natural resources bubble broke in the early 1980s, the Sunbelt fell from grace and the financial capitals — Manhattan and, to a lesser extent, Boston — swelled to vast bubblish proportions. I didn't want the atlas to be obsolete before it was even printed, so I had to keep these things to a minimum.

Generalizations

Still, some regional patterns emerge, even at the relatively rough level of the states, and ones that last beyond the ups and downs of the regional business cycle. Some are obvious, some less so.

  • The Midwest is, unsurprisingly, the whitest, least physically mobile (that is, with the fewest people moving in or out), most egalitarian region (in terms of income distribution) in the country.
  • The South has plenty of poverty and relatively few nonblack 'minorities.' Diversity is mainly a feature of a handful of states, notably California, Florida, New York, and Texas.
  • The most ravaged environments are in the Midwest (not surprising, given its industrial history) and the South (momentarily surprising, given the recentness of industrial development — until you consider the region's poverty and blackness, further proof American society likes to dump its waste in poor, nonwhite neighborhoods).
  • True to the cliches of Nashville, the South is also a hotbed of marriage and divorce. Illiteracy is concentrated in the South, New York, and California.
  • AIDS is a disease of big coastal cities.
  • Sodomy laws are concentrated in the South and Mountain West, while gays and lesbians enjoy civil rights protection in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and the West Coast.
  • D.C., New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are jammed with lawyers; the South has relatively few.
  • Some states known for their vigorous anti-government, pro-self-reliance rhetoric, like Virginia, Georgia, and Texas, are among the most blessed with Pentagon contracts and personnel expenditures.

Openness

One of the oddities of researching social life in this country is the plenitude of data. Government and private agencies collect unimaginable quantities of information on us, and with few exceptions are happy to share it. The behavior of government statisticians is — and it sounds dweebish to say this, but I'll do it anyway — almost inspiring. Reams of data are published, much of it free or nearly so (and if you're a journalist, it's almost always free). The economists, demographers, and other analysts who collect and distribute the data are almost always happy to share unpublished information, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their products, and advise on interpretation. Even nonpublic sources are generally quite open; unless proprietary, market-moving data is involved, private agencies and firms are as open as the public ones. Almost every agency is laden with publicists and press officers who know little on their own, but generally help you get what you want.

There's so much data that sometimes you wonder why they bother. To take one important example, we know in great detail how many and what kind of people fall below the official poverty line — where they live; what color their skin is; their age, sex, marital status, work experience, and educational level. If you don't like the official definition of poverty, you can get the raw info from the Census Bureau and roll your own. Yet despite that, no one in public life really gives a damn about poor people, and pundits and other gasbags repeatedly say things that official data proves false. You could say similar things about crime (there is no great uptrend in crime rates since the 1970s) and health (illness and death rates are highly correlated with income, and blacks are more likely to get sick and to die than whites even after correcting for income, but the right still says that the American poor are well off and that racism is a thing of the past).

I guess this proves the validity of Poe's observation in 'The Purloined Letter' — the best place to hide something is in plain view.

RECODINGS

I've been speaking here in the media I know best, words and numbers. In preparing the section of the atlas — each topic is given two pages, known as a 'spread' in the argot, typically consisting of a map and satellite graphics — on literacy and learning, I discovered that the masses were perhaps not as fluent in these languages as the people I associate with. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 80% of English-speaking adults are unable to summarize a newspaper editorial after reading it, or describe in words the patterns shown in a bar graph, or figure change by adding up the costs of items shown on a menu. Nearly 97% of adults cannot draw a graph on their own when supplied with the raw numbers, or figure the cost of carpeting a room when given a calculator, the room's dimensions, and the cost the carpet per square foot.

One wants to assume that it's easier to represent the social geography of the U.S. in maps and graphics than in words. But visuals are not my specialty; I often forget to look at the pictures when reading a newspaper — a sharp headline is more likely to catch my eye than a pungent photo. Though I had little to do with creating the graphics in The State of the U.S.A. Atlas, I did have to learn to try to think visually — whether there was a story that might stand out on a map, or a trend that would come alive in a graph. Denied words, how do you express the fact that the U.S. has the most unequal distribution of income — the greatest share of its population in poverty and the smallest in the middle-income ranks — of any industrial country.

And even if you could represent these things to your own satisfaction, does the grim news of the Education Department's literacy survey imply that the public would find the pictures any more intelligible than the words? And even if they did, is The State of the U.S.A. just another collection of purloined letters, true but irrelevant?

Doug Henwood is the editor of the Left Business Observer, a New York-based newsletter on economics and politics, and the author of The State of the U.S.A. Atlas, just out from Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Books. He wishes to emphasize that the jingoistic ring of 'U.S.A.,' with its echoes of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was Simon & Schuster's choice; he preferred the more neutral 'United States.' His e-mail address is dhenwood@panix.com.

Copyright © 1994 by Doug Henwood. All rights reserved.

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