Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic argues that it’s getting easier, but more alarming, to differentiate Blue from Red America. The one “looks more and more like Scandinavia, while the other increasingly resembles a social Darwinist’s paradise.” In TNR’s current issue, Cohn examines, with the help of some academic researchers, the strength of the safety nets in blue and red states. The former he defines as those states carried by the Democratic presidential nominee in each of the past three elections. (That roster comprises California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.) Red states are those that voted for the Republican nominee in those same three elections (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia). Cohn’s analysis leaves out purple states, which favored one party, then the other, over the past decade’s presidential contests; as well as Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming, whose economic idiosyncrasies would have distorted the picture.
“By nearly every measure,” Cohn concludes, “people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states.” Why? He allows that causation is difficult to prove, but believes the strong correlation between the level of government spending on social welfare and indices of well-being “is hard to dismiss.”
Here’s an odd thing, though: If people in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, wiser, prettier, funnier, and generally better off than people in the red states, why is Blue America growing so much more slowly than Red America? According to the Census Bureau, the overall population of the 18 blue states grew by 5.9 percent between 2000 and 2010. The 20 red states, by contrast, saw their total population increase by 13.6 percent. (The rest of the country grew by 12.6 percent.) We see the same thing if we look at changes over 20 years. The blue states’ total population increased by 15.9 percent between 1990 and 2010, half as fast as the 32.9 percent of the red states. (The rest of the country increased by 31.4 percent.) As a result of these different rates of growth, blue states accounted for 46.2 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, compared to 49.5 percent in 1990, while the red states’ proportion grew from 28.7 percent to 30.7 percent over the same two decades.
Cohn praises Massachusetts, the “quintessential blue state,” where “residents get a lot more help from their state government than people who live elsewhere in the United States,” including health care “available to almost everybody” and welfare benefits “among the most generous in the country.” Even by blue-state standards, however, the Massachusetts population is growing slowly — just 3.1 percent between 2000 and 2010, and 8.8 percent between 1990 and 2010. Both figures are about one-third the growth rate for the other 49 states plus Washington, D.C.
Social Darwinist Texas, on the other hand, “doesn’t even try to provide the kind of protection for its vulnerable residents that Massachusetts does,” with “more uninsured residents than any other state” and a welfare program “among the nation’s stingiest.” As a result, people are departing this quintessential red state in droves. Oh, wait. Texas grew by 20.6 percent between 2000 and 2010, nearly seven times as fast as Massachusetts, and 48 percent between 1990 and 2010, five and a half times as fast as the Bay State.
Of the ten states that grew most slowly between 2000 and 2010, seven — Michigan, Rhode Island, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania — are blue. (The others are purple Ohio and red West Virginia and Louisiana, which lost population after Hurricane Katrina.) Six of the ten states that grew most rapidly were red ones: Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina. (The others were purple Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado.)
One way a state’s population will grow is as a result of “natural increase” — the number of births minus the number of deaths. People have no choice about where they’re born and limited control over where they die, but more of a say about where they reside and work during the years in between. “Net migration” is the Census Bureau statistic assessing that phenomenon, which it breaks down into international and domestic (intranational) migration. The Bureau shows the U.S. population increasing by 8,944,170 between 2000 and 2009 from net international migration; California, Florida, New York, and Texas accounted for nearly half that total. By definition, however, net domestic migration leaves total national population unchanged while people redistribute themselves among the states. They did so between 2000 and 2009 by, overall, moving out of blue states and into red ones. Of the ten states that had, by absolute numbers, the highest population losses due to domestic out-migration, eight were blue: New York, California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland. (Purple Ohio and red Louisiana were the others.) Of the states that had the biggest increases as a result of domestic in-migration, five (Texas, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee) were red; four (Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, and Colorado) were purple; and one (Washington) was blue.
It is “difficult,” writes Cohn, “to find any indicator of well-being in which red states consistently do better than blue states.” Because his article doesn’t mention the demographically stagnating blue states and burgeoning red ones, he ventures no hypotheses about why so many people are fleeing havens that have flourished by taking The New Republic seriously and flocking to states rendered ghastly dystopias by ignoring it. Possibilities worth considering include: (1) Blue-state governments are better at doing things than accomplishing things. Blue states’ highly unionized government workers may, for example, deliver public services more noteworthy for their cost than their efficacy. (2) The taxes necessitated by the blue states’ safety nets are too damn high, a problem especially likely to cause population outflow if people feel they’re paying for crappy but expensive government programs. (3) “If you are poor,” one of Cohn’s experts concludes, “you want to live in a blue state.” But perhaps that depends on whether you envision being poor for as long or as short a time as possible. If it’s the former, a Scandinavian safety net has obvious advantages. If the latter, however, the chief consideration will be opportunities for jobs, new enterprises, and affordable housing. If red states, lightly taxed and regulated, provide more of these opportunities than blue ones, they will attract more people seeking to get out and stay out of poverty.
Though he offers no diagnosis of the blue-state exodus, Cohn has a can’t-miss remedy: Keep Americans from voting against his policy agenda with their feet by making sure they have no way to escape it. One of his experts laments that America has not one safety net, but 50. Following the argument to its conclusion, that’s not just too many, but is exactly 49 too many. Giving “states a lot more control over the size and shape of the social welfare state” would mean giving them “the liberty to let a whole class of citizens suffer.” That mustn’t happen. “This country has room for different approaches to policy,” Cohn writes. “It doesn’t have room for different standards of human decency.” There should be room for just one standard, the New Republic standard, codifying the moral advances made over the past century, “from the Progressive era through the New Deal and Great Society.” Cohn does not spell out how much room he would leave for different approaches to policy, or how different those approaches could really be after the one true standard of decency has been honored.
People who find that prospect disquieting can take comfort from the knowledge that they’ll be able to relocate anywhere in the country — and take their minds off the national safety net’s ill effects by enjoying a change of scenery or some distinctive regional cuisine. If that doesn’t work, there’s always the option of leaving the country altogether and relocating to a land that has prospered by repudiating Massachusetts’s blue-state model. Spain, perhaps, or Greece.
— William Voegeli is a senior editor of The Claremont Review of Books, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center, and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.