Category Archives: American Community Survey

Alternative Metrics of America’s Divided Economies #1

We’ve become increasingly accustomed to how data visualizations divide the nation.  But the proliferation of such visualizations almost carries the danger of introducing multiple metrics of diminishing effect.  While we have become so used to how they divide the nation into groups, their multiplication tends to erase the past that lies beneath them, and creates something like a parlor game of contemplating explanatory bases for divides, even indulging the  visual pleasure of parsing the nation that obscures the public good.  In cultivating a period eye of the infographic, a somewhat terrifying occurrence perpetuated now by federalist states’ rights, whose genealogy extends back to efforts to oppose desegregation, we readily consume such rapidly produced images of the nation’s divides.

Organizing the overlooked role nonprofits play across the country create an extremely sensitive marker of how we inhabit the nation, and the varied micro-cultures and economies it retains, even in an age of globalization.  The value of such a map lies less in the image that it presents of the nation as a mirror of a status quo than as a stimulus to reflection and self-examination, as well as an interrogation to the benefits that nonprofits continue to bestow on the public good at the same time as the ongoing and impending contraction of the public sector of government fails to meet those needs.  For the place of the nonprofit in our society provides a way of thinking about their relation to public needs not often met and productive ways of reshaping the status quo.  The very unevenness of the distributions of employment at nonprofits suggests questions of levels of education and legal or financial training, to be sure, as well as necessary capital for forming boards, to make us reflect on the uneven existence and acceptance of nonprofits’ roles in public life.

But if the reasons for such an uneven distribution of nonprofits across the country are unclear–as is the proportional number of positions that nonprofits hire in private-sector employment–it seems especially rewarding to parse and challenging to unpack:  for while the environments that help nonprofits remains a topic for sociological research and scholarly inquiry, the demonstrably different economies and cultures of charitable giving that encourage nonprofits suggest divides in a range of services across the nation–as does the strength of belief in the worthiness and need for the attention of nonprofits to specific issues.  The economic needs of nonprofits presents an image of the national economy that prompts more investigation of the lay of the land–and the national economy’s variegated landscape, that cut to the heart of how maps illustrate spatial divides, far more effectively than the often untrustworthy distributions of votes or political affiliations.  If we have come to privilege difference and map national divides, the landscape of nonprofits demands close scrutiny for what it tells us about the uneven nature of how nonprofits play a public role across the nation–roles with indeed might be encouraged by something as simple as the availability of both open-access on-line data, which still widely varies across America, and indeed the availability of broadband.  (The uneven distribution of the first is pictured in the header to this post.)

A quick initial compare-and-contrast between the most recent snapshot of the percentage of employment in nonprofits of all total employment to the recent metrics of “Where Men Aren’t Working” across the country suggests an almost inverse relation between employment and the landscape of employment in nonprofits–which, with local exceptions, reveal increased economic health.  But the nonprofit landscape in America is more than that, and cannot be reduced to a healthy economy alone.  The reduced presence of the nonprofit across many states mapped below must no doubt have provoked a deeper rippling effect in local and regional economies, which we will be increasingly feeling over time.

 

non profs in 2012

Men Not Working Map

1.  The multiple socioeconomic factors lead to such steep variations in employment at nonprofits are unclear, and can’t be reduced to single metrics since they are based on synergies.  But the uneven nature of their distribution seem to respond partly to the culture of the availability of a trained demographic, allowing possible professional donation of time, and a distinctly well-trained workforce, as well as either charitable giving–although boards are clearly important–and social needs.  The presence of nonprofits themselves also clearly impact the environments that encourage and allow the vitally important roles that they play in the local society, and generate clusters of nonprofits, with experts and legal teams, that greatly facilitate their growth in ways that meet important local needs–as well, often, as the existence of a number of trained individuals (from former teachers to health-care professionals) able to service the functioning of the nonprofit and its specific needs–a number of which were created during the recent Recession.  The importance of mapping this human geography of the public sector seems especially important in the face persistent attempts to parse, and effectively essentialize the country’s apparent political divides.  Indeed, the topography of the nonprofit provides an interesting way of illustrating differences across the nation–and the map of the spatial distribution of nonprofits addresses interesting questions of how maps illustrate spatial and cultural divides.

The uneven geography of non-profits partly responds to the uneven familiarity with the varied roles nonprofits can fill in local economies–and the existence of evidence of the benefits a nonprofit can bring to local communities.  Clear inequalities within the employment nonprofit organizations can offer mapping of the economic inequities and inequalities of public life.  The role of nonprofits in America is primarily understood as meeting a large and needed social good that would otherwise not be served–and providing a legal infrastructure for private investment to flow in ways that will benefit the public good, extending from preserving the untrammeled nature of public spaces to the effectiveness of our health needs, schools, parks, and the large artistic communities that our nation is able to foster, as well as the monitoring of the continued safety of drinking water or protection of its coasts.

The multiple roles of nonprofits deserve special consideration and hold particular import as an index of social health.  But nonprofits can also be understood as providing some 11.4 million jobs in America, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s recent measurement.  Clearly, a culture of non-profits tends to reinforce itself, and give needed momentum for the expansion of further boards, endowments, and dedication–in ways that permit a culture of nonprofit organizations or 501(c)3’s to gain legitimacy as a source of employment and indeed an effective public actor in a region.  But telling divides are evident among regions of the United States in a map that discriminates between those states that foster nonprofit activity in the country–both as a means of distributing local wealth and directing public attention to public needs.  How much does this divide show a shifting awareness of the role that nonprofits can play within the economy–not only in purely economic terms, and by providing some 5.5% of the GDP and employing some 13.7 million people, or, in 2010, about 10% of the workforce, distributed over a range of business areas including health, education, human services, environmental groups, and international affairs, as well as varied public society benefits, in 2010 and 2011–with most being quite small.   While about 2/3 the income of nonprofits came from private sources in 2010, they offer a crucial role in identifying sites for charitable giving and areas for volunteer work, as well as tax-deductible contributions.  Even despite the recession, giving grew considerably from 2000 to 2009, by 32%, but the geography of the growth in employment was considerably segregated between north and south, in ways that suggest a distinct shift among two qualitatively different sorts of economies, given the sizable contributions that nonprofits are poised to make to local economies.

 

2.  A clear divide had emerged by 2007, when the majority of employment at nonprofits were based largely in the northeast, it seems, as well as in the less-densely populated states of the midwest, in ways that oddly mirror a North-South divide which inexplicably extents the Mason-Dixon line across the lower forty-eight before the Recession began:

 

non profit employment in 2007, USA

Perhaps revealing a Scandinavian influence of Minnesota and social conscience of Wisconsonians that has begun to migrate across the country, the northern states not only have a huge edge on non-profits that employ a large number, but a different effect on local societies where they’ve grown.The percentage of non-profits has clearly solidified in the central US during the following year, which revealed something of a sizable growth of states employing over 10% in nonprofits in the year that the Recession began:

 

non profits 2008 in usa

 

What’s striking in the statistical distribution released by the US Department of Labor is its difference from the map of the over two million in the nonprofit universe among the disaggregated states in which they exist, which dismembers the nonprofit from the territory in ways that rank those states possessing the largest aggregates of nonprofits–shown here in a rainbow spectrum–without discriminating relative size.

 

ViewCmsImage.aspx

 

This “pro-performance map” crafted by Guidestar in 2014 tracks the number of nonprofits alone as if this was meaningful.  To be sure, it shows a somewhat important picture of the “nonprofit universe,” which warms at the coasts, but whose topography betrays noted dip in wealth in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, somewhat able to be reconciled with the above, but a huge number of nonprofits in Texas and Florida, as well as New York, Pennsylvania, and California, in a far more disparate topography, but little sense of its topology.  The view that it affords of on the ground of the terrains in which nonprofits operate seems intentionally rendered opaque and misleading; it is perhaps designed to be more celebratory or illustrative of variations than deeply informative.

The high number of nonprofits based in both Texas and Florida, however, inversely reflects the relatively small number of employees in nonprofits in either state compared, say, to New York–which hosts a similar number of non-profits–or to California–though the huge number of nonprofits in that state greatly exceeds that of Texas.  But true variations exist on a more local level.  The numbers of nonprofits are not ranked by population density, or nonprofits’ size and volume of business or effectiveness, although the nature of this funny animal–the nonprofit–also seems to resist clear classification enough that grouping their number in aggregate may be of questionable value save for tax reasons.

 

3.  However, the deep disparities among regions where nonprofits might meet compelling social needs–witness the wide trough of bright yellow in the deep south, or the orange of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Idaho, more than a decreased degree of available capital, needed boards, or philanthropy.  The map of philanthropy in America interestingly reveals that the decrease in the presence of nonprofits is not necessarily in clear correlation with giving alone:  indeed, according to a recent study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the proportion of income that wealthy Americans gave to charity as a whole steadily declined as the recession began to lift from 2012, even as middle class Americans, interestingly, gave more readily to charities, as did the poor, either  as they seem to have more disposable income and cash, or as they developed more empathy–the generosity of giving among those earning $200,000 or more declined some 4.6% from 2006-12, while those earning below $100,000 annually increased the share of their income given to charity by 4.5%–creating a sizable spread–and meaning that charities and nonprofits are by no means looking only to the wealthy for support. Moreover, the map of giving across the country revealed some truly striking differences–with greater generosity existing throughout many states where somewhat fewer numbers of nonprofits tend to exist, including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado and parts of Arizona and Nevada, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota; Georgia experienced a huge growth in its giving ration.  (Strikingly low records of giving exist in New York, measured in this way, as well as California.)

 

mapping philanthropy

Giving Ratio

 

Such an image of the “Giving Ratio” across the nation–and the sharp declines that it reveals in charitable giving in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia–as well as the generosity that it reveals in cities across the Sun Belt from Memphis to Birmingham–conceals that wide variations in economic wealth across the country, as well as the variations in the local presence and intensity of poverty or topology of need.  It also does not unpack what the charitable giving was destined to do.

It is also true that local variations in giving are difficult to classify by state alone, however, and have, as this map of Giving in the Bay Area reveals, a distinctively varied topology.

 

 

Bay Area Giving

 

Nonprofits depend on defining one’s vision and values, as well as the cash-flow so fundamental to making a nonprofit organization work–or attracting the needed funding and board needed to clarify philanthropic goals as the Recession lifted.  The ties to an audience before whom one is able to define both specific goals and best practices are especially critical.  The issue of employment within nonprofits might be placed in the context of total private employment (excluding federal, county, or local jobs, in other words).  But it seems to have most strikingly and stably grown in the northern states through 2012, even in the Recession–which is fundamentally a very good thing.  But the absence of a larger than 6% employment in non-profits within the private sector in a number of needy states or states with large income disparities–first and foremost, Texas–is however striking.  What makes the difficulty in defining the goals of nonprofits seems deeply tied to the sorts of settings where philanthropic projects can be effectively sold.

The proportion of those employed in nonprofits continued to grow steadily during 2012 both in Virginia and North Carolina, as in California–at which time as such employment stagnated in states like Wyoming, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina, the few without a sizable number of nonprofit employment; states in the SouthWest like New Mexico and Arizona, in ways that suggest the changing political temperatures of those regions, at the same time as Indiana grew larger in the number it had of jobs with nonprofit organizations.

 

non profs in 2012

The national landscape of nonprofits seems decisively tilted to the north and Blue states, or at least to exclude Texas, Wyoming, and much of the Deep South, as well as a few Red states such as Idaho and Arizona. These are places where few would ever go to work for a nonprofit organization, and probably one couldn’t imagine a well-paying job with a nonprofit, given the lesser amount of money in circulation for the public good.

 

4.  Shifts in employment in nonprofits charted in the above maps from the U.S. Bureau of Labor suggests several hypotheses that demand to be investigated in the future.  The data visualizations clearly show, it seems, the increasing growth and consolidation of the viable employments among nonprofits in those areas where a critical mass of non-profit works exists and circulates, informed in both best practices and opportune models of structuring of such valuable public entities, to fulfill roles not provided by government services.  To be sure, they also show the local consolidation of nonprofits’ advisory boards–not geographically limited, to be sure, but greatly informing the viability of a nonprofit community, matching congruent interests.  But they also reveal the consolidation of a perhaps incremental awareness over time of the visible results non-profits play, and the supplemental benefits that the community can draw from them:  and it is this final factor that seems most dismaying in the maps of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, because we are approaching–or seem to be–a nation in which the divided perception of the role played by non-profits might be becoming naturalized in ways that run against all of our better interests.

While one wouldn’t want to suggest that specific areas have an over-abundance of the nonprofit, there are increasing deserted stretches of the absence of employment by nonprofits, “nonprofit wastelands” where the possible public roles that such entities could play are absent from public debate.  Although the differentiation of the country is increasingly isolating the same southern states for which the Voting Rights Act stipulated “pre-clearance” for changes in electoral laws or practices in order to mitigate segregation from political involvement, the map that results suggests a distinct business culture, less directed to joining boards, providing public involvement, or being encouraged to foster communities of giving across much of the Old South.  This suggests, more than anything, a shifting topography of those states where there primarily don’t seem to be evident social concerns that command attention, or where organizations such as credit unions are needed, and the most dramatic disparities in wealth can not only be found.  One could associate these distributions in interesting ways to areas where there is less hope–both because of persistent poverty, divided here into metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, and less interest in investment or giving back–that seem endemic to Alabama, Mississippi, and sectors of Texas and South Dakota.  What is at stake is not only those areas where one can best communicate one’s vision, but where the pitch for philanthropy can be sufficiently effective to gain a sufficiently broad body of a workforce to attract works to one’s cause.  And in many sites of more persistent poverty, the requisite sort of cash flow might have dried up if it existed in recent times.

 

persistentpoverty

 

(Looking at the distribution of non metro poverty across the south, we might re-evaluate Rand Paul’s ill-spirited observation in Time magazine that “The failure of the war on poverty has created a culture of violence” in Ferguson MO that put police “in a nearly impossible situation”:  a population no longer feeling itself served by a system of justice seems the result of a persistent disenfranchisement, as much as poverty:  instead of blaming “moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair” on politicians who have betrayed trust by encouraging the “poverty trap,” we might do well to look at the deeper causes for neglect of social inequalities.  Deeply ingrained questions of unemployment are clear in tabulating the geographic distribution of folks with income lying below the poverty level state-by-state, using the American Community Survey of 2010, a synthesis from disparities in economic wealth synthesized in censuses from 1980 to 2011.

 

PovertyByState

 

Although Wyoming does not appear a site of significant populations below the poverty level, and only a fairly conspicuous region of large non-metro poverty rates–

 

povmap200812high

 

the 2010 Census revealed Wyoming’s three counties with high poverty rates, removed from a swaths of green.

 

map_poverty

 

The inverse relation can be expressed by charting the degree of income inequality at the county-by-county level, using the Gini index, which provides a far more finely grained view of inequality.  By organizing the distributions along different quintiles of income-equality, where a zero value expressed full or complete income equality or parity, the persistence of gaps in income inequality–and increase in need–can be mapped county-by-county.

To be sure, only a small range of the nation approaches much above .6, but such peaks of inequality are, somewhat terrifyingly, not only clustered contiguously, but quite clearly localized and concentrated in several specific areas of the nation’s landscape, from the tip of the Florida coast to the deep souther  sates to ares in the Dakotas to rural West Virginia:

 

Acs GENI

 

 

The very areas of the south and southwest where income inequality is most pronounced int he 2011 American Community Survey suggests a distinct social topography, one where the incomes of workers at nonprofits are unlikely to congregate or be as visible parts of the local economy, creating the precedents and models for nonprofit action in public life.  Not only are  non-profits less likely to have as high or elevated a social profile, but the sorts of jobs done by the nonprofits and services that they render, often designed to supplement the shrinking presence of federal government in public life or engagement in venues from public education to the environment, invisible or rarely present.  What sort of map would be devised to better illustrate this uneven topography of the nonprofit?  Perhaps a map of the layers of individual sort of nonprofits across counties, that would comprehend the variations in the range of causes that nonprofits might address–which would better show the lacuna or absences of the work of nonprofits, from hospitals to credit unions to afterschool groups to environmental watchdogs, that fill increasingly needed roles across the country.

Does this relate to the distribution of nonprofits, those engines of the redistribution of capital and distributors of benefits of social wealth?  The goods and services that nonprofits generate would be made more visible, in short, integrated into the sort of OpenStreetMap template to chart the relative dearth or multiplication of nonprofits as the very services that nonprofits provide society–often not only supplementary but complementary to the services available in a purely for-profit firms and contractual arrangements, as Hansmann suggested (Hansmann 1980) but also, as economists David Easely and Maureen O’Hara classically argued, as providing activities not offered or able to be contracted in a purely for-profit economy.  Illustrating the diverse ranges that their services fill across the country would be a start to generate a picture of the topography of the needs filled by and goods contracted through nonprofits that individual state statutes allow.  If such a map could be correlated with the local topographic variations across the country’s landscape reveals the varied constraints that nonprofits face and encounter in providing these needs, the different cultures that are created by nonprofits, as much as that nonprofits simply reflect, might be mapped.

The improvement of social welfare that are often among the outcomes of nonprofits might be evened out or at least comprehended as a result, rather than be naturalized or written off as part of the status quo, and the shifting rules in which nonprofits work better understood.  Indeed, working toward the articulation of a clear vision and mission depend on a possibility of finding a believable middle ground which may not readily exist in several states.  They make us want to start to ask what sort of society in which we want to live, and how we might best attend to the severity of the range of economic  inequalities and inequities of access to education that persist across the country.  In an era of increasingly uneven access to technology–and the areas of technological expertise from which nonprofits can benefit–we are, moreover, increasingly in danger of perpetuating the uneven distribution of opportunities for nonprofit employment across the land.  Which would be not only a shame, but have deep consequences for the country’s future political debate.

For while we pretend that the political space of the country is uniform, it is not, and the unequal basis of national infrastructures starts from the basic inequalities in access to broadband, still mostly concentrated in the northeast and region around Lake Michigan, as well as the larger megacities on the west coast from Los Angeles and San Diego to San Francisco and Seattle, with Denver thrown in.  An attempt at evening the ground for the development of nonprofits in different areas might be to reduce extreme variations in the maximum advertised speed and availability of broadband across areas of the country, 3 – 6 Mbps to 1 Gbps+–evident in the near-absence of high-speed broadband in a state like Wyoming–

 

Max Download Speed BB

 

or the troughs evident in the number of broadband providers available across different regions, and the clustering this creates, not to mention the deserts in Arkansas:

 

Served-Unserved # providers 2 to 6

 

 

or the numbers of providers offering broadband access

 

Nubmer of Poviders offering access

 

or national variations in typical download speeds:

 

Download speeds

 

download speed legend

 

The relative lack of broadband providers in high Gini coefficient regions of persistent poverty unsurprisingly align with those where relative opportunities nonprofit employment is lowest–if the roles that nonprofits might play perhaps most prominent.

 

BB Providers, 2-12

 

While such maps, available for further scrutiny at far greater local detail courtesy the Federal Communications Commission’s interactive Broadband Map, may seem far removed from the differences in non-profits, high-speed downloads and access provides one of the crucial channels to jumpstart nonprofits’ activities and provide something of a level playing field in which–pardon the laissez faire rhetoric–nonprofits can grow.  Recent debates about ensuring national net neutrality allow an equality of broadband access that is the basis for preventing further divides from becoming more exacerbated–with deep consequences for the future of political debate and discussion in the United States, as well as institutions of social welfare, in the immediate future.  Allowing corporations to gain privileged possession of a “fast lane”–and shunting all others into a “slow lane”–would leave the country with a two-tier system of access to and availability of resources that are not only individual, but would effectively discourage the growth of nonprofit work in many areas that need it most, and have to deal, as a result, with the lacuna that are embedded in a purely for-profit marketplace.

The crowd-sourced responses of FCC Consumer Broadband Test reveals where the ISP speed was regarded as insufficient used responses to a deeply relative question, but compellingly shows–in a map where red is used to note a negative, and green a positive, a mixed message about the availability of services in some of the areas where it is perhaps most needed to exist as a framework for needed social services:

 

Crowd-Soruced feedback on ISP

 

The FCC’s Consumer Broadband Test informatively measured reported download speed-tests for broadband across the same regions, with those at the lower end of the spectrum indicating the lower speeds of delivery in ways that indicate a typical for poorer regions of the country.  Doing the best to increase internet service to level these uneven levels of service provides a needed corrective to the relative absence of nonprofit entities.

 

Speed-Tests v. Advertised:Typical

 

Speed Tests:Legend

 

 

One might profitably measure not only the speed of downloads, however, but the vitality of open access data across the United States, however, to arrive at a better metric for the data-sharing that is not only necessary but important to conduct business for non-profits–and measures the culture of open data across the land.

The image of the repository of open source addresses Michal Migurski compiled provides a neat map of those places where municipal governmental data is online and available in the US, creating a database which folks can readily use and build off of in their work:

 

render

 

 

While this rendering can include state-mandated municipalities and not be that illuminating of some regions without open data online, available open data provides a basis for the work of many nonprofits on a large scale, and is conspicuous by its absence save for around fifteen points of light in a large region of the south where markedly lower numbers are employed in non-profits–as a reverse-color illumination maps reveals.

 

OA data

 

While we usually use the metaphor of the “shadow economy” to describe the black market, and we have come to refer to “black sites,” since the administration of George W. Bush, as those secret sites at which the National Security Council of the Bush presidency permitted the CIA to build, in order to torture those suspected of ties to terrorist organizations.  But the true areas of the economy that must remain ensconced in shadows are the areas without nonprofits, where the service due sectors of the economy is absent or less actively attended.  This reverse-color mapping is meant to suggest the dark that is left in nonprofits’ void.  To be sure, many centers of nonprofits attend to areas and regions outside of their immediate vicinity:  they serve forests, or legal services, or open waters.  But there is a lack of a sense of that service in areas which remain in the shadows in the above map.  There is, in ways that suggest a deep divide needing to be remedied, that persists in the new Deep South, where one looses one’s orientation on much of the land between Houston and Atlanta, or Dallas, Memphis, and Jacksonville:

 

OA data US South

 

The dense bursts of light that cluster around the coastlines of California and hug the shore cede to a vast open expanse, it seems, in the Western states, with stretches of empty space between, as one moves from a concentration dense with nonprofit works to stretches where this would be poorly understood as a line of work–or maybe even as a set of services that goes unmet.

 

West Coast

 

 

The dark spots and even more dark regions across the nation map a desert of non-profits, where social services go unmet, water safety less monitored, literacy tutoring in low profile, after schooling limited, hope diminished, parks untended, and wildlife not preserved.  The critical role of nonprofits in the economy is absent, and both the economy and the society feels the deeply deleterious effects.

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Filed under American Community Survey, data visualizations, mapping the nonprofit economy in America, Non-Profits in America, nonprofit economy, nonprofits, persistent poverty, Recession, statistical maps

Variations on Our Fragile Union: Small Stores across 40,000 Zip Codes

Any maps create quite powerful tools to knit regional divides into coherent forms.  The order of maps serve both to fabricate harmony of a whole from its parts and for showing its divides, in ways data visualizations make increasingly clear.  If the origins of “chorographies” were illustrations of communities, and aestheticizations of their harmony, we’ve become increasingly interested in and attuned to visualize divides, as much as visualize unity, to explain the symptoms of divisions where they might be most evident, and use the format of the map to demonstrate compelling evidence of the fractures that divide, and explore how ideology ever came to “cluster so predictably,” in with geography,” as Steven Pinker nicely put it, and if different conceptions of human nature exist in different parts of the country. We’ve all been all too familiar with the recent remapping of these divisions, increasingly evident  in our political discourse, and affirmed in different ways by posing a set of choropleth maps as points of departure in order to chart, gloss and explain the extent of our divides by the range of data available on local differences across our fragile union.

As we approach Christmas and the season of gift-buying upon us, it makes sense, as Philip Bump, with some help from folks at Esri and Stamen, suggests, to consider the stores where we realize shopping habits and alternatives as criteria that increasingly divide us–and consider the consequences such divisions hold.  Indeed, the divided commercial topography in many regions of America reveal–even more than real estate–a deeply drawn set of cultural divides rarely considered in attempts to understand our fractured political landscape:  so dense are the clustering of large stores in certain areas that they obscure the legibility of place names.  In ways that reflect something like a Google Maps query “shopping at private business near [ZIP code]”, the distribution of data suggests how the landscape of shopping shifts in regions of the United States that provide a deeply qualitative record of our society.  But rather than generate a list of sites, or map all stores, selective parsing of large scale vs. independent shops provides a neat filter to measure the commercial contours of the landscape in ways that won’t so much correlate as reflect a composite image of the lower forty-eight. What’s the new political topography of the United States?  Well, perhaps it’s less red states vs. blue states, here shown in two views of the divisions between Democrats (blue) and Republicans (red)–by data here parsed at county level and by intensity of affinities–map a deep set of social divides that have strikingly played out in weirdly clear geographical blocks in presidential elections.

As Steven Pinker put it, “Regardless of who wins the presidential election, we already know now how most of the electoral map will be colored, which will be close to the way it has been colored for decades.”  Why, indeed, are some red states so red, and other states so blue?  Is this a sign of a divide between rural and urban inhabitants and political preferences–or is it deeper, and, if so, how did we become so divided in our imaginary of what the nation should be?  Are these maps creating differences, or do they reveal some of the deeply-set social divisions codified by Mason and Dixon as a latitudinal divide, but whose division is now reflected ban urban/rural divide? We all know that the last few elections have been stunningly fragmenting–

votes-  red v blue, by county and interest level

In a coy reference to collective mapping, Aaron Black of the Washington Post used Gallup’s annual rankings of which states are the most conservative and which are the most liberal to create a heat map of populations across the nation, employing the popular cartographical device so often adapted in infographics to chart virtual a spectrum of political opinion, which, while less intended to emphasize the fixity of divides within current public opinion, showed that outside of Alabama and Wyoming, the number of self-declared “conservatives” in the country does not follow such a close divide:  yet it is hard to find a less changing term than “conservative” and “liberal,” and these don’t map onto the breaks in voting that have recurred across four presidential elections.

%22Open Heat Map%22Washington Post

But the pressing question of where these divides actually lie have led folks to return to maps with considerable zeal–both as powerful heuristic vehicles of statistical measurement and projection, and to find possible answers for these real divides.  The prevalence of infographics and talk radio have conspired to make this a real issue of political debate for the The American Conservative, where Patrick J. Buchanan placed the question of secession on the front burner this year, corralling red state secessionists and blue-state secessionists into the same category as folks who acknowledge we either face increasing ungovernability due to geographic expanse or having little in common:  the issue of what we have in common, not much of a question for the very notion of a nation or state was in the past understood to balance multiple interests, may be less the question than the “spirit of intransigence” that we face in most political debates.   Does this have to do with the vociferous defense of issues that won’t be debated, or the fact that we have been all too often poising debates in quasi-imperial essentializations of what is un-American?  Or is it due to “lifestyle”?

Can we remap these divisions along lines of population density, as Robert Vanderbai of  Princeton University has argued, whose compellingly recast the electoral map to reveal how two alternate styles of sociability came to inhabit one land.  By throwing the stark red/blue political topography into 3D relief, Vanderbai invites us to look at that divide, not fractured by different data, but mapped onto density so that we might better understand our electoral maps:

Blue v. Red Topo Raised

The divisions in the electorate have also, of course, encouraged the weirdly popular but loosely credibly parsing of local attitudes across the nation.

Despite the hugely informative value of this density distribution, the question of how the distribution of the landscape we have created might be as well illustrated by the commercial topography we have created, and the space that they create.   For the interesting map that charts a distribution between the majority dominance of large box-stores or chain-stores over smaller privately-owned stores suggests a unique landscape that we have become all too used to inhabit, and a measure of density all its own–but not necessarily in tandem with Vanderbai’s glorious and striking distribution of a two-color bar-chart.  Although Vanderbai’s chart makes the compelling case that our distribution of electoral votes no longer in fact reflects the population distribution in the country–and indeed the possibility of the winner of a popular vote losing the number of votes in the electoral college–the map is less than informative of the landscape we have created in the United States–a landscape that is still being repeatedly surveyed.  To be sure this reflects or is a reflection of density, but also offers an alternate index of social topography.

Let’s peak at the regions that Bump has created, in far more fuzzy fashion, by agglomerating the number of stores across its 40,000 zip codes, and taking a measure of those regions where large retailers show a clear dominance to the extent that they have pushed out all but one privately owned retailer, noted in reds of varied intensity, versus those blue dots where privately owned retailers constitute the majority, and the corridors that this creates, despite its lack of clear contours.  While the ZIP-code breakdown is reflective of the new concentration of wealth on the eastern corridor, the relative decline in incomes provides a clearer index of where such box stores (predominantly discount retailers, who appeal to the pocketbooks of their customers) will tend to concentrate.

Fuzzy USA

Income by County:2012

The contours of these divides provide a basis for re-examining the arguments implicit in most recent choropleths, and thinking about the nation we are poised to become.  Although not exactly mirroring the levels of declining income, one can detect in the areas of the spread of the big red superstores a reflection of the yellow states with median incomes below $22,126 a year, showing a selective density of big bog scores pushing in toward Denver, and congregating around Michigan, the Great Lakes, Iowa and near Arkansas.

Red Crawling INland to Denver

Starting small, for example, take the data that Natural Earth and OSM mappers help reveal about the new topography of shopping in the Midwest, that both reflects density but even more the sorts of incomes that can support private businesses:  as one moves outside of urban areas, the proportion of zip codes composed almost or entirely of exclusively large retail stores rises in clusters, often clustering (predictably) about pockets in precisely those cities also able to support small businesses:

Density?

The blurring of the map, in a far fuzzier version at larger scale, suggests a veritable field of red that is almost aligned in belts, and creates a strong contrast to many parts of the country lying further west . . . where they seem to choke off privately owned stores.

Fuzzy Mid-West

Returning to view the southern reaches of the country a greater scale, the discreet stores in much of South appear as oases of small businesses in relatively open land–presumably where small businesses don’t crest above a level of 50%– in Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis:

Southern US

Looking at the odd distribution of the Eastern seaboard, a region where large stores appear to dominate the landscape of all but the coastal corridor, and gain a distinct density as one moves inland and approaches a different economy.

Fuzzy NE

A more fine-grained view of the same region–focussing on New York to Baltimore–reveals a more complicated topography, but echoes the general division between small pockets of private stores and box stores that choke out the competition, being the chain stores that they are, which, with relatively cheaper real estate at malls that can be bought up and leased out by developers, creates a new division between our populations that may be deeper than–if it is created by–a gap in income or disposable wealth.  Interestingly, an abundance of privately held, smaller stores is often concentrated around smaller towns, as well as taking on density at large cities.

New York to Philadelphia

What sort of social topography does this create?

The distribution of stores has not been indexed for growth rates, but might be measured against recent census findings about declining incomes.  The depressing image of the appropriately colored “brown” marking declining median household incomes in a period of just five years nicely captures the tone of depression of much of the country, and the difficulty of political classes to capture much backing outside the venting of folks whose incomes have declined.  Despite the aversion of a serious depression after the banking crisis, we’ve been hardly hit.

Median Income Changes, 2007-12

But the choking off of private businesses might be a sad consequence of these declining incomes, and the road trip searching for big bargains at Dollar Discounts that might be taking up the weekend breaks of much of the country.  While demanding further investigation, the number of chain stores that have emerged across in the country surely reflect the declining incomes in the nation, as much as changing costs of real estate.  And these m

The proliferating choropleths that have emerged to explain our social divisions, something of a tour of data visualizations that have duplicated like rabbits on the web will reveal, have in fact tried to uncover divisions in moods as dividing the country–although this map, with the authority of a DSM, seems to assign fixed moods to the boundaries between states that we have come to internalized, so nurtured are we in reading data visualizations as records of objective truth.

On one extreme, the heuristic value of those boundaries between states are fetishized in a spectacular fashion in America’s Mood Map, which uses statistics originally published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to detect underlying differences of constitution–the personal, rather than the political–that creates an odd visualization whose  very terms (“relaxed and creative”; “friendly and creative”; “uninhibited”) make it sound like we’d all really get along quite well, aside from difficulties of understanding tone, and downplays any political division by recasting the map in terms of something like affect.  By ostensibly mapping divides of personality types and tabling the political, this map even invites you to find the state that best matches your mood, if one is to believe self-reported data.  (The division was parsed, with a straight face, as reflecting weather–hypnotized by the ubiquity of the weather-map and seeking to invest something like objectivity in the odd color-scheme below as something that revealed actual differences to invest the odd graphic with similar credibility–for more on the notion of mapping how “different regions have different personalities” in a data visualization, look here.)

America's Mood Map

 

Regional essentialization has proceeded, in an attempt to map the country as made of different nations.  In the drive to map national divides, Frank Jacobs parsed nine nations of North America on largely economic criteria, rather than personality, distinguishing regions of similar economic production, and casting each as a separate GDP, based on concepts of the uniqueness of our nation from WaPo journalist Joel Garreau, and again granting them stark objectivity via a choroplethic map that similarly served to instantiate diverse regions of the continent:

 

GDP map Is this a proposal for introducing new tariff lines?  If so, how much such a distinction makes sense–what about that “Empty Quarter”?  what on earth do they do, and how can they exist?–can be tabled.  And the future of the “foundry,” if it rests on metallurgy, is certainly on the rocks.  And what does Quebec produce, aside from fleurs-de-lis? Colin Woodard sought to describe national divides into some eleven groups, arguing that we’ve “we’ve never been a nation-state in European sense,” for all who imagined the possibility of American political unity, and wrote a slim book that recast the Progressive notions of a ‘melting pot’ by explaining that each region reflected its own distinct stock, and illuminate differences to which our democracy, supposedly, had unfortunately rendered us blind–but whose divisions Woodard appears to suggest might explain all American history, including the Civil War, up to the spread of the Tea Party.  Woodard’s pedantic mapping of distinct regional variations combines racial essentialism and a “revenge of geography” to point up our innate fragmentation: ELeven Nations

The distinctions were starkly mapped in alternative iterations of the “American Nations” were presented as a key to better understand ourselves, as if to hold a mirror to the land:

 

American Nations Sean Wilkinson Design

 

Sean Wilkinson Design Woodard’s work extrapolated from the historian David Hackett Fischer’s argument about the differences in the settlement of different regions–particularly the northeast and south–by different Anglo cultures, and the effects of Anglo farmers who settled the northeast from the Scots-Irish herders who settled the Deep South, and from the work of many anthropologists and the psychologist Richard Nisbett on the culture of honor in the South.  But despite some  neatness in registering cultural differences in the map, it doesn’t take huge skill to reveal the culture of separateness in the Deep South, and a floating barrier of “Appalachia”–the ‘light South’–around it;  yet problems arise when one moves from the map to individual experiences. Despite the evocative names with which other regions are endowed, from Tidewater to the New Netherlands, their relative stability or homogeneity as entities comes to break down, as does the notion that their boundaries are so firm.  The odd coherence that he supposes in such regions as “New France”–would Québécois see anything similarly to folks in Louisiana or even New Orleans, let alone accept them as affines?–and other regions–how isolated and cut apart is this “Left Coast” today?  What could ever be mapped as weirdly as Yankeedom, and is it still alive?–seem animated by an ethnic essentialism belied by the shifting map of ethnic divides and affiliations in the United States.

And it is not clear that these areas will retain meaning with and over time–although the deep danger of which the map is something of a symptom is a pronounced lack of national belonging across the land!  Woodard’s sense that American history “all goes back to who settled those regions and where they came from” flattens history, and would not be readily recognized by any local inhabitants. No doubt these can be traced to the deep and unavoidable social divides and fissures that exist in our country, and to the different parts that different regions have played in the culture wars.  Perhaps it might make sense to adopt an approaching demographic forecasting, less entrenched in the categories used today, and the apparent generation of megaregions.

 

 

2050_Map_Megaregions2008_150-thumb-615x409-106683

 

There are, of course, true socioeconomic divides that fragment the country in all too real ways.  The frighteningly influential role of real estate in shaping the country is sadly evident when we map residential space by income, and illuminate truly early modern concentrations of wealth.  Using the American Community Survey to map a choropleth by variables of income, real estate, and educational levels attained, we can perform something like an archeology of the national map, digging deeper to examine the real divides among its inhabitants.  Dividing regions of the country by median level of income, clear pockets of navy blue surprise the eye and remind us about the unavoidability of underlying social divides–that, I’ve elsewhere argued, mirror local reception of the Affordable Care Act.

 

income

 

Or, again with an eye to the opposition to the ACA, long after the Great Society, we can divide our choros by clearly drawn concentrations of poverty as much as wealth, using a distribution of  local populations living below the poverty line in each of the nation’s counties that reveals a similar concentration of poverty in the deep south and southwest:

 

poverty

 

Not to mention the map–which somewhat scarily illustrates parallels–of the percentages of adults over 25 years of age who did not complete High School, in a sort of national map of educational attainment as they are reported in US Census figures:

 

Over 25 w:o High School Diplomas?

 

These stunning choropleths, courtesy Calvin Metcalf, Kyle Box and Laura Evans, reveal a Southwest and deep South we knew, but weren’t ready to acknowledge.  They tell an interesting story as to why Virginia and Florida belong less to the Old South–or to what it has become.   To look more closely at a comparison of other local trends in the Community Survey, look here. Yet we might do well to look elsewhere to map national divides, and new databases to grasp our emergent geographic divisions and continental divides.  While real estate markets have much to do with the divides, we seem to have individuated the intersection between density and real estate across state-lines, by taking the presence or absence of small businesses in our communities as a sort of tipping point.  For the benchmark of zips with one or more privately owned businesses reveal a major fracturing of the local landscapes in the country, oddly resonant with our divided electorate.  The huge regional discrepancies of coasts and interior needs to be read with density, in ways that few openly consider, as a means to map the habitation of the landscape, shifting from questions of bodies, ethnic composition, or other criteria, toward the nature of interaction between self and place that shops afford, and even the sorts of relations to objects that are synthesized in the contractual relations of the marketplace, not to mention the stimulation and relative criteria of judgment that a diverse marketplace affords customers. The below map of the nation is limited to those spots with no or one small businesses within the ZIP in question (the red dots, which often cluster and overlap, and are more intensely red to reflect the intensity of that concentration) and zip codes which are distinguished by a majority of small businesses (blue dots).  While this omits large regions of the country–where there are an intermediate percentages of small businesses, and they don’t register–those are of course the very regions where large stores are equivalent or exceed small businesses, making them likely sites of the inevitable large box stores.  And the selective optic of the map is precisely its virtue as a portrait of contemporary agora, or our evolving landscape of exchange.

 

small shops:large shops

 

In ways of considerable sociological significance, the map reflects the landscape we’ve made for our country, or we make for our selves, by mapping some of the sites where we define ourselves to what is left of the public sphere.  The map may indeed suggest some interesting sociological detail about where the country is heading, with interesting correlations to level of educational completion below which it lies.  There is something that goes beyond or beside a decay of discrimination, but leads to a shift in one’s relation to the market and how one is a participant or spectator in a collective activity, in the geography of box stores that can be mapped across America.   The dominance in a mental universe of Home Depot, Walgreens, Wal Mart, Dollar General, Target, Lucky, Thrifty, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and even Sports Authority exposes a topography of disorientation and dislocation, rooted in the offshore production of goods and plastics, undermining face-to-face encounters in 24/7 Emporia that offer the best deals may well conceal endemic conditions of placelessness and timelessness:  in a country where 80% of the stores nearest to anyone are large retail chains, one has to interrogate the ramifications of what sense of social space we retain:   as we become consumers in another Holiday Season, bracing ourselves for sales, what sort of social change lies in no longer having a corner store? Where’s the analysis of this shift of commercial topography when you need it?

In ways rich with sociological significance, the map tells much about how store-goers orient themselves to the publish sphere, direct consciousness to the relation of goods’ producers, and regard the social contract or social nexus as a given or negotiated part of the status quo.  For as much as it lies in our pocket-books, perhaps the deepest divide among us of all lies in the landscapes where we spend it.  Perhaps the deepest divides of all rest on not so much in levels of income or consumption across the lower 48, so much as the shops available for perusing or spending time–and the attachments to place, to space, to objects, and indeed behavior pursuant from them, which inevitably cascade from how much time inhabitants devote to patrolling the aisles of brightly lit box stores of Sam Walton–rather than looking in at local businesses to greet their owners and examine their wares.  Based on a search for the places where “small business really thrives” in the lower forty-eight among the nation’s 40,000 zip codes, data from OpenStreetMap has allowed a map of the sorts of stores in each–noting in red those zip codes hosting none or one small businesses, whereas those where small businesses constituted an outright majority enjoy varied shades of baby blue.  The resulting small-business texturing of the country provides a valuable index for looking at–or reading, if not actively interpreting–the nature of its communities, and an alternate American Community Survey of its own.

While this doesn’t exactly correspond to a political divide, it may tell us more about what sort of a nation we’ve become–and what sort of commercial contacts that we value, or personal contacts we are able to cultivate to the owners of shops, places more likely to apt local products.   The division of red vs. blue is less reflective of a political divide, but seems to offer itself as an alternative metric to those above introduced to measure social divides, and belongs in the company of other social indicators taken as prognostics of political divides in the electorate, if not of an alternate community survey.

 

small shops:large shops

 

In ways that do not map directly onto the distribution of real estate–shown in the first map from data of the American Community Survey above–as one might expect, the topography of shopping that it indicates suggests deep social divides to which Nate Silver might pay some attention:  while the coasts are brightly blue, in California we can detect the conservative central valley and interior; the absence of blue in much of the central states is shocking, and preponderance of red throughout the south–save coastal Florida–overwhelms, although the Northwest seems reliably blue.  In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the red blotches shade to pink and dissipate; Texas seems divided with deep red concentrations.  Indeed, the problematic position of Pennsylvania in the national picture is nicely illustrated by its deep red isolation, whereas privately run business dominates the Northeast Atlantic seaboard, particularly north of New York, as well as in much of New England:

 

Pennsylvania?

 

The irony is hopefully apparent, given that the defenders of Republicans are presented as the champions of free enterprise.  Maybe they are:  they are not, it seems, defensive of independent shops or businesses. The sea of red in the middle of the country, but seems a growing miasma that doesn’t necessarily respect political affiliations, but also bodes pretty badly for the survival of a culture of localism, at least in terms of the future (and profitability) of independent business:

 

Growing Miasma

 

The map, in the image it offers of the Midwest, reveals a striking clumping of regions without independent businesses–clumps not necessarily paralleling cities–the like of which is probably a major shift in our society the likes of which the world may have never seen:

 

MidWest

 

Those places with greater income may simply be ready to foot the extra bill for local boutiques, some will say, or forget the offers of Amazon’s free shipping:  but we see a deeper divide, I’d argue, shaped by the market as much as responding to lines of wealth, and conditioned by all those aisles of shopping centers illuminated by starkly lit flourescent lights, lured by the slogan “Save Money.  Live better,” and names like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar that remind shoppers to keep the bottom line first and foremost in their shopping experience, rather than cultivating stores that might provide more jobs to their neighborhoods.   (Even if their parking lots may use LED lighting, most stores have a sort of blinding or blanching flickering flourescent light so recognizable that it seems potentially addictive as a unique neurological experience.) We can see a new mapping of the landscape around cities, which, if we take only the midwest, emerge as something like islands with private stores, surrounded by areas of box stores that cluster around the nearby highways and urban belts, to take Chicago and St. Louis; smaller towns are dominated by zip codes dedicated to large chains:

 

Around Chicago

St. Louis

And in the deep interior, many zips feature the near-absence of anything but larger super-chains:

In Illinois

And we can see the fracturing of a political landscape in divided states–such as Colorado–where diverse concepts of the geography of sales, as it were, present different models of a lived landscape, almost cheek by jowl, alternating between spaces of chain stores and a telling density around Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs–with a few exceptions–of small businesses.  In some ways, this reflects the deep debates in the state on such issues as gun-control, birth-control, ecology and a more nuanced or complex relation to federalism.

Complicated Colorado

 

 

Where we shop is increasingly what we are not only because of our attachment to objects or commodities, but how we are oriented to the world through the market–and as we map our relation to markets in different ways,  the ongoing onslaught of this attack of the big box stores has deep repercussions for our society’s unity.  Go forth and map as you do your holiday shopping . . . To be honest, some of the maps derived from this data don’t make immediate sense to me, or at least jibe with my own experience, such as the large number of small businesses found in Las Vegas, although I suppose this reflects the definition of a “small business.”

 

Las Vegas?

But the image of the Bay Area is somewhat recognizable, and recognizably blue.

 

Bay Area

Yet a broader landscape and context emerges as one expands to adjacent ZIP codes in order to include bordering strip malls, including those inevitable and all too visible nearby strings of outlets, and sections of highway that are dotted exclusively with box stores.

 

Bay Area Large

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Filed under American Community Survey, choropleth maps, Mapping Box Stores and Small Businesses, OSM, Red states v. Blue States, Red States/Blue States