Tuesday, October 21, 2008

So I guess that makes me lazy, profane and un-American, right?

Like both my parents, and 3 out of 4 of my grandparents, I was born in the United States. I pay taxes, watch baseball and vote. Plus, I've held a US passport for years. So I was a bit surprised when I found out that (according to Sarah Palin) I wasn't a "real American". At a recent rally, she remarked:
"We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C... We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom."
Now I have to assume that Palin was making an empirical statement and not reciting vague platitudes to stir up the Republican base. So I thought we could go through the charges*:

Small-town Americans fight our wars:
This is a bit misleading. According to research at the conservative Heritage Foundation, rural areas are slightly overrepresented in the military. Specifically, as the rural concentration of an area rises, so does the proportion of military recruits. However, most Americans live in suburban/urban areas. As a result, 80% of military recruits come from areas where at least half the population is urbanized. This means that there are lots of soldiers from big towns and cities who ought to be offended by Palin's comments.

Tim Kane, the author of the study, has an interesting explanation for why this is. Since military recruits are actually slightly better** educated than the general population they have more to gain from the technical job training the military has to offer. This would be particularly attractive to rural recruits, as Kane explains:
Rural areas generally offer a less flexible, thinner job market. The military extends job opportunities into these areas, with technical training that is usually unavailable otherwise.
Small-town Americans run our factories:
Again, this is a bit misleading. Research from John Quigley at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City looks at the differences between urban and rural employment. A higher proportion of rural workers are employed in the manufacturing sector (1 in 5 vs 1 in 8). However, since urban workers account for a much larger percentage of total employment in the US, there are more urban manufacturing workers than rural ones.

People in small-towns are more virtuous:
Most people buy this one. After all, small-town folk are decent and pure, and avoid the vice that's common in the big city, right? Fortunately Reason Magazine is there to set the record straight:
Illicit drugs are nearly as common out there as they are in cities and suburbs. In 2007, a survey of 8th graders by the Monitoring the Future project at the University of Michigan found that country kids were 26 percent more likely to experiment with drugs than middle-schoolers elsewhere. Overall methamphetamine consumption among adults and teens is more than 50 percent higher in the country.

The story with alcohol is worse still. "Relative to their urban counterparts, rural youth ages 12 to 17 are significantly more likely to report consuming alcohol," says a 2006 study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Excessive boozing among adults, it noted, appears to be no less widespread in Mayberry than in Metropolis.

Nor is the countryside exempt from social problems often associated with the inner city—such as, if you'll forgive me, out-of-wedlock births. The federal government apparently doesn't tabulate these births according to whether they occur in urban or rural areas. But it does break them down by state, and wide-open spaces are no guarantee of responsible sexual behavior.

The highest rates of births to unwed mothers are in Mississippi and New Mexico, both of which have high rural populations. The most urban states, New Jersey and California, do better than the average in out-of-wedlock births.
What about the unspoken charge leveled by Palin? Her comments clearly suggest that big-city "fake" Americans leach off of small-town folk who grow their food, protect them from hard, and manufacture their sex toys. Unfortunately for Palin, the data suggest otherwise. According to John Quigley, transfer payments (government payment such as tax rebates, welfare, etc) are a much larger proportion of total income in rural areas (19% in 1999 vs 12% in urban areas) and have been growing since 1983.

So yes, I was offended my Palin's remarks. But I wasn't the only one:

*Throughout this piece I will use the terms "urban" and "rural" according to the definitions used by the US Census department

**98 percent of all enlisted recruits who enter the military have an education level of high school graduate or higher, compared to the national aver­age of 75 percent (see study link above)

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