The anecdote and the data

Spending a year traveling the country is one way to observe some striking similarities and differences across regions. Of course it’s the differences that make me curious.

McDonalds exit sign

How many McDonalds does one exit need?

There are Target stores and McDonalds absolutely everywhere. You’ll find Waffle House in the South and Bob Evans in the Midwest. There are ranch-style ramblers and manufactured homes all over. And Santa Fe style adobe houses in New Mexico. And First Period saltbox style houses in Massachusetts.

Maple Creemees, Burlington VT

Best Maple Creemees in Burlington, VT

You can get awesome Pumpkin Pie Concretes (half pumpkin pie, half frozen custard, mixed together—yummm!) in the Midwest; Key Lime Pie in Florida; Maple Creemees (maple-flavored soft serve ice cream) in Vermont; Beignets in Louisiana; and homemade Whoopie Pies in Pennylvania.

Ft. Myers Beach

Typical winter day at Ft. Myers Beach, FL

We’ve noticed, purely anecdotally, of course, where the roads are better (New Mexico, Florida) and worse (Maine, Michigan, and Mississippi). Where the drivers are worse (Florida—those are some crazy drivers; and Texas). Where the winter weather is best (Florida, hands down) and summer weather is pretty bad (Wyoming, Texas). Where a lot of people are fit (Utah, Vermont, New Hampshire) and where a lot are not (Kentucky, Mississippi). Where they grow the most corn (Nebraska, Iowa) and where they grow the most grey hair (Florida).

Church readerboard Columbus G

Church readerboard, Columbus, GA

Crosses along Hwy. 61 Mississippi

30′ Crosses, Hwy. 61, MS

Here’s one more difference I’m fascinated by (and I’ve talked about in this blog)—there are not only more churches in the South and parts of the Midwest, but it’s much more socially acceptable to display signs that proselytize your religious beliefs. (And I want to note that talking about religion can be sensitive; I’m making no judgments here, just observations.) You can hardly be in a town in North Carolina or Georgia or Tennessee without seeing religious messages on church readerboards. Signs, from billboards to hand painted messages, proclaiming fundamentalist beliefs are common. Driving from Kentucky down through Mississippi you see enormous crosses erected alongside the highway.

Louisiana billboard, Lust drags you down to hell

Billboard in SW Louisiana

Corbin KY

Sign in a Corbin, KY, front yard

Having grown up a  “Northerner”  on the west coast, this feels foreign to me. I always thought your religion, or lack of, is your own business. And as we drove across the northern half of the country last summer and started down the eastern seaboard in the fall, obvious local religious fervor was rare. But continuing south into the Carolinas, I quickly became aware that you’re much more surrounded with religious messages in the south, especially in smaller towns and rural areas.

Demographic data confirms my anecdotal sense about this North/South regional difference.

Map of more religious states

The most religious states (darker purple); map from Movato

Digging around, I found an analysis of several relevant state-by-state data points: the number of churches per capita, how actively residents worship, how residents identify religiously, and the number of Facebook “Likes” for prayer. This (rather flippantly written) article on the Movato site (a real estate blog) averages that data to rank all 50 states from most to least religious. Looking at their map above, you can easily see that what we observed anecdotally reflects the reality.

What got me thinking again recently about these kinds of regional differences was the most recent map in the New York Times’ Upshot section, showing where you’re more likely to find two-parent families in the US. This is the latest in a series of fascinating US maps from those excellent data-driven journalists at The Upshot.

The NYT launched The Upshot one year ago, just about the time we started roaming the country. They take big data sets (financial and demographic stats, census results and polls) and analyze it to pull insight out of an otherwise overwhelming set of information. So as we’ve traveled the country and thought about where we are, it’s been wonderfully relevant for me to see how The Upshot has made all kinds of trends clear and beautiful. Here are a few of their maps side by side. See any patterns?

NY Times Upshot, 2-parent families map

Upshot map: Most 2-parent families (dark red)

NY Times Upshot, best places to grow up map

Upshot map: Highest kids’ future earnings potential (blue)

NY Times Upshot, Hardest places to grow up map

Upshot Map: Hardest places to grow up (orange)






If you’re curious about the country and the people in it, and how we’re different and the same, this can help you visualize a largely north/south divide (and, to a degree, a coast/middle divide) at a glance. Don’t you think it’s intriguing to see these views together? For me, the broad takeaway from these four maps is some kind of correlation between affluence, two-parent families, and how we identify with religion.

I find this stuff fascinating. As we wander the US, we notice our similarities and differences, but we’re barely scratching the surface of the places we visit and the people we talk with. I love having access to insights that help me perceive them from more sides, and get beyond the anecdote.


All photos: © 2015 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved. Map credits as noted.

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