Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, May 07, 2002
The inimitable Paul Krugman has a hard-hitting piece about the grotesque farm bill making its way to the President's desk. On the economics, I agree with him totally: the bill is a boondoggle of the highest order, a colossal waste of money and an invitation to bloat and waste in the agricultural sector, an insult to hard-working and hard-hit New Yorkers - not to mention to hard-hit South Americans and South Asians in whose welfare we now have a strong national interest - and a challenge to the free-trade regime that underwrites global prosperity. And to top it all off, it doesn't particularly help family farmers, but will accrue the greatest benefits to large agribusiness concerns. It's the latest piece of evidence that in this Administration, geography doesn't just trump ideology, it eclipses it.

But in passing, Krugman takes a shot in the culture war, one that deserves a response. Here's the key section:

But politics aside, maybe the farm bill debacle will help us, finally, to free ourselves from a damaging national myth: that the "heartland," consisting of the central, relatively rural states, is morally superior to the rest of the country. . . .

I've done some statistical comparisons using one popular definition of the heartland: the "red states" that — in an election that pitted both coasts against the middle — voted for Mr. Bush. How do they compare with the "blue states" that voted for Al Gore?

Certainly the heartland has no claim to superiority when it comes to family values. If anything, the red states do a bit worse than the blue states when you look at indicators of individual responsibility and commitment to family. Children in red states are more likely to be born to teenagers or unmarried mothers — in 1999, 33.7 percent of babies in red states were born out of wedlock, versus 32.5 percent in blue states. National divorce statistics are spotty, but per capita there were 60 percent more divorces in Montana than in New Jersey.

I decided to take a look at one of the statistics, the one about teen pregnancy. The statistics I found were from 1996, not 1999, so I'm not checking his figures, but doing my own analysis.

Here are the top and bottom 10 states in terms of teen pregnancies per 1000 as of 1996, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (a "non-profit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education" according to their website).

10 lowest teen-pregnancy rates:

North Dakota (50 per 1000)
Minnesota (56 per 1000)
Maine (57 per 1000)
New Hampshire (57 per 1000)
Iowa (58 per 1000)
South Dakota (59 per 1000)
Utah (60 per 1000)
Vermont (60 per 1000)
Wisconsin (61 per 1000)
Nebraska (62 per 1000)

10 highest teen-pregnancy rates:

Nevada (140 per 1000)
California (125 per 1000)
Arizona (118 per 1000)
Florida (115 per 1000)
Texas (113 per 1000)
New Mexico (110 per 1000)
Georgia (109 per 1000)
Arkansas (109 per 1000)
Mississippi (108 per 1000)
New York (108 per 1000)

It sure doesn't look like there's a pattern of blue-states with low rates of teen pregnancy and red-states with high rates. Indeed, Krugman's own article shows a minimal difference between the two. Rather, the clear pattern is: white states (like Minnesota, Utah and Vermont) with low rates and states with large non-white populations (like California, Georgia and Texas) with high rates. Political orientation would seem to have far less significance than culture or economics - precisely what one would expect.

The same site has stats going back to 1985. Care to see where the largest percentage declines in teen pregnancy rates were, from 1985 to 1996?

Top 10 declines

Alaska (48%)
Maine (38%)
New Hampshire (36%)
Vermont (27%)
Wyoming (24%)
Montana (21%)
Oklahoma (20%)
Utah (20%)
Colorado (20%)
Pennsylvania (20%)

Bottom 10 declines

Nevada (12% INCREASE)
Illinois (3% INCREASE)
Indiana (1% INCREASE)
Rhode Island (2% decline - rest of list are declines)
Arkansas (3%)
Kentucky (3%)
Tennessee (4%)
South Carolina (4%)
Mississippi (4%)
New Mexico (5%)

Looks like a pretty similar pattern to me.

Now, there was a widely-noted drop in teen pregnancy and illegitimacy in the late-1990s, and an uptick in marriage rates, particularly among African-Americans. Mickey Kaus has highlighted this trend, and persuasively linked it to the 1996 welfare reform law passed by the GOP Congress and signed by President Clinton. The law was a major Republican priority, resisted by liberal interest groups within the Democratic Party from the beginning.

I'm kind of taking a machine-gun to Krugman for no particularly good reason here. His moral swipe was an aside, after all. But it was a pernicious aside that weakens an otherwise strong piece. The reason to oppose farm subsidies isn't that farmers are less moral than we think, or city-slickers more moral. It's that farm subsidies are payoffs to big corporate interests in GOP-leaning states, and are both terrible economic policy and terrible foreign policy. (And, for that matter, terrible environmental policy.) Welfare breeds dependency, whether we're talking about poor teen mothers or rich agribusiness combines. And that's the right argument to use to fight it.