• U.S.

An In-Depth View of America by the Numbers

4 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Some places on earth are simply too big to photograph: the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall, Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Those monuments don’t fit in any frame; they were made–by God or man–to overwhelm. You can visit them, snap some shots, but something is missing when you get back home. So how do you capture a country with 300 million independently minded and moving pieces? Who would even try?

We hunt the larger truths because we can’t help it, especially within sight of a critical election, when pundits and pollsters have to reach general conclusions about countless specific doubts and hopes. But America won’t sit still to have her portrait painted. Our politics especially resist reduction. One reason lawmakers have to draw such twisted districts to save their seats is that we are so much more purple than they’d like, a tangle of red suburbs of blue cities and blue counties in red states. That mischievous map of a huge central red sea cupped by blue parentheses on the coasts makes us look like a very different country than we really are.

Our Spirit too does not lend itself to summary. To say that America is a very religious country is both true and unhelpful without a concordance. Researchers at Baylor University identified the different Gods we envision and the worldviews they invite. Whether you see an attentive Father or a distant one, a critical deity or a forgiving one, goes a long way toward explaining your views on military spending, the Iraq war, environmental responsibility and wealth redistribution.

The very idea of redistributing wealth can feel un-American in the land of Horatio Alger, until you look closely at how it’s spread now. Half of us earn less than $30,000 a year, 90% less than $100,000. To get an idea of how we value our values, Howard Stern earns every 24 seconds what takes a cop or a teacher about a week. Parents hoping to persuade their children to buckle down in school might try this: as an adult, the more you know the less you’ll have to work. Those with a high school degree or less spend far more of their time on the job than those with a college degree or beyond.

If Time is the new Money, then we learn something about who we are by how we spend it. Although they’ve cut back, most mothers still spend more time doing housework than taking care of their children–and twice as much time doing it as fathers do. But that is still a mark of progress. The total hours worked by men and women are roughly equal–about 65 hours a week–when you count paid and unpaid work. For all the headlines about the time crunch and the lost generation of latchkey kids, today’s parents actually spend more time with their children than parents did in 1965. In the case of fathers, they spend twice as much.

Our families are getting smaller–with one vital exception. Compared with those of Europe and Japan, the U.S. population is younger and more colorful because of the continued arrival of immigrants and their higher-than-average birthrates. Of the 100 million Americans who will join us in the next 37 years, half will be immigrants or their children. In the next few decades, 97% of the world’s population growth will occur in the developing world; the U.S. is the largest developed country in the world that is still growing at a healthy clip. That matters, strategically, economically and politically, as developed countries try to maintain their services, their militaries, their economic strength. If there is already a gap in energy and optimism between the U.S. and Europe, it looks likely only to widen in the next generation.

America has always been a nation of pilgrims–people who come here and those born here who like to move around. But if you are feeling restless and want to explore the country, don’t go by the names or you’ll get lost. Loving County, Texas, needs to sound so friendly because it is the least populated county in the lower 48. New Jersey is the Garden State, but it’s more like a planter, since it’s the most densely populated in the country. Sundance, Wyo., sounds like a merry place, but it was named for a Lakota Indian festival in which young warriors cut off pieces of their flesh and then danced in a test of strength. You wonder who moves to Helltown, Devil’s Den, Weedpatch (all in California); Boring, Ore.; Elephant Butte, N.M.; West Thumb, Wyo.; Trickem, Ala.; Possum Trot, Ky.; or Lonelyville, N.Y. But they are all probably close to someone’s idea of paradise.

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