Moving beyond the red state blue state to a sensible analysis of American regions – a patchwork nation

Finally, we can move beyond the “red state, blue state” simplified categorisation of American conservative/liberal states to a truly sensible analysis of American regions.  In their September 2010 book Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the “Real” America, Dante Chinni and James Gimpel move beyond the simplistic mid-first-decade-of-the-twenty-first century American split between “red” states and “blue” states to presenting a far more complex analysis of American regions.

They give twelve “”statistically distinct ‘types of place'”:  monied burbs, evangelical epicenters, minority central, tractor country, military bastions, campus and careers, immigration nation, industrial metropolises, boom towns, service worker centers, emptying nests and Mormon outposts.  There is a great sophistication to this analysis, which is in fact based on a great deal of research and data crunching undertaken at the “Patchwork Nation” project, which is part of the non-profit and non-partisan Jefferson Institute, based in Washington DC.

In fact, if there is a problem with the “patchwork nation” concept, it may be that it is both TOO sophisticated (it is not possible to remember all 12 “types” easily) and simultaneously not quite “granular”  enough.  This was written up in the April 2011 Atlantic magazine, and the Atlantic website has a neat interactive website that enables you to see the various types at a glance.  A far cooler version of this map – with an almost unlimited amount of data – appears on the patchwork nation website home page.  But again, the diversity and size of the USA starts to defeat the utility of these maps.  What exactly does it mean at the “county” level, particularly when some counties (think Alameda CA with both some poor parts of Oakland and some wealthy parts of Berkeley and the Oakland Hills – or San Francisco, for that matter, with its mixture of high and low income neighbourhoods – or Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens; or how about my home county of Middlesex in New Jersey with some pretty poor folks in New Brunswick but some reasonably wealthy folks in parts of Highland Park, Edison, North Brunswick, East Brunswick, etc).

But enough quibbling.  The point is this:  the USA is a vastly diverse country and simple “binary” definitions simply do not work, and this attempt to understand and detail what is happening economically and socially in the USA over the last ten years is thought-provoking.

I w0uld love to see similar analyses applied to Australia.  We do not face the same regional economic challenges as the USA does – for instance we are likely never to have the sort of “dying cities” popularised by Newsweek in January 2011.  For the record, the cities identified by Newsweek are (from worst): (1) New Orleans; (2) Vallejo CA; (3) Hialeah, Florida; (4) Rochester, New York; (5) Cleveland; (6) Pittsburgh; (7) Detroit; (8) South Bend, Indiana; (9) Flint, Michigan; and (10) Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Australia’s rural and remote areas face different issues, and not necessarily easily solvable ones, even by a country which has (on the surface at least) seemed to have skipped recent economic recessions.  Australia’s supposed “two speed economy” causes great public policy challenges for all.  In fact, in October 2010, the Australian Prime Minister (Julian Gillard) moved away from that idea and started referring to the country’s “patchwork economy”This was reinforced by the Australian Treasurer (Wayne Swan) in his “Economic Note” on 1st May 2011.  Hmmm, a “patchwork” … sound familiar, anyone?

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