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The real state of the union, in 33 maps and charts

State of the Union addresses have become an occasion for presidents to try to exercise their agenda-setting powers and focus national attention on the things they want to talk about. But the tradition arises from a constitutional provision directing the executive branch to provide Congress with an annual update on how things are going. So, in that spirit, here’s a series of 33 data visualizations that illustrate where America is in early 2015 and where it’s going — with a special eye to the likely political flashpoints in the year to come.

1) The United States of unemployment

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Our union is a large and diverse territory, and its economic fortunes differ substantially from place to place. North Dakota, which has been experiencing a boom in oil extraction, has an especially low rate of joblessness. But a range of other states in the largely rural northern midsection of the country have unemployment rates that are well below average. These seem to be states that people are moderately reluctant to move to, even when economics suggests that moving could be a good way to find work. Meanwhile, despite the massive social and political differences between them, the Deep South and the Pacific Coast have weak job markets in common.

2) The world’s #1 economy


GDP per capita isn’t a perfect proxy for living standards (it doesn’t consider inequality, for example, or the fact that the weather is way nicer in Spain than in Denmark), but it’s the best quick summary measure of economic capacity that we have. The United States is in the top tier on this count (matched only by a bunch of much smaller countries). In other words, despite recent struggles at home and extraordinary growth in China, the United States is still the top dog in the global economy by a large margin.

3) Shifting south and west

US westward expansion Department of Commerce

This map illustrates how America’s population has shifted over the decades by tracking the central point of the overall population distribution. The Census Bureau tracks this by measuring the United States’ “mean center of population” — that is, “the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly,” if all Americans weighed exactly the same. From 1790 to 1940 or so, it marched steadily westward, at which point the invention of air conditioning started to lend a southward skew to the line. With population growth slowing down in California and speeding up in the Carolinas and Georgia, the future will likely involve an even sharper turn in the southern direction.

4) A polarized nation

Political polarization Pew Research

There are many ways to define political polarization, but this chart from the Pew Research Center captures an important way in which the United States has become more divided on the issues. It’s not the depths of our disagreements have become deeper — it’s the fact that they’ve become better organized. Democrats now tend to be consistently liberal across a range of issues, while Republicans are consistently conservative. The mass public still isn’t nearly as ideological as the average political pundit, but it is becoming more and more ideological and more systematic in how it thinks about issues. That reduces politicians’ room for maneuver and contributes to a spirit of increasingly nasty partisanship on Capitol Hill.

5) A nation aging unevenly

Census Bureau

The ongoing aging of the American population is a fundamental fact of social, economic, and political life. But even though this demographic shift is universal, its impact is quite uneven across the country. Elderly Americans tend to dominate in the rural plains, from which young people generally move away. The elderly are also found in large numbers in Florida and Arizona — places where retirees flock in search of sunshine. Many areas near the Mexican border, as well as Mormon strongholds in the Rocky Mountains, have a noticeably younger population due to higher-than-average birth rates.

Energy and environment

6) Climate disaster looming


The Obama administration has rolled out a number of significant initiatives designed to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions and even brokered a major climate deal with China. But the changes required in order to meet the global target of no more than no more than a 2°C rise in average global temperature remains daunting. This chart shows how aggressively global emissions would need to fall — even in the context of China, India, and other developing countries trying to industrialize — in order to reach this goal.

7) The Keystone XL pipeline

Joe Posner/Vox

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has become an enormous flashpoint in US politics. Experts broadly agree that while building the pipeline would create some construction jobs and increase the profitability of some Canadian oil extraction operations, it wouldn’t have a massive impact on the US economy or global climate change. Nonetheless, the fact that the pipeline crosses an international boundary means it requires approval by the US executive branch. That made it a convenient target for climate activists who wanted to draw a line in the sand against new fossil fuel projects. In turn, the Obama administration’s reluctance to approve it has become a symbol of conservatives’ larger argument about job-killing regulation.

8) Cheap oil

Joss Fong/Vox

The steep decline in oil prices this winter is a complicated phenomenon, but the basics involve a decline in foreign demand and an increase in domestic oil supply. That makes this price crash very different from the one that occurred in 2008, which coincided with the collapse of the US economy. This world of more plentiful oil is excellent news for the country’s economy and is leading to outbursts of joy among people at large.

9) The economic impact of oil

Resources for the future

The United States is both a major consumer of oil and a major producer of it. Consequently, though the economic impact of cheap gasoline is positive for the country as a whole, significant local disparities exist. This map prepared by Resources for the Future shows that growth in Texas and several neighboring states, plus West Virginia, North Dakota, and Wyoming, should slow down as a result of the new energy paradigm. A few of these states are places that had been growing at rapid rates and attracting workers from elsewhere; thus, though the slowdown will be noticeable, it shouldn’t dent the national economy’s momentum. But for states like Louisiana or New Mexico, which weren’t especially prosperous even with oil booming, the slowdown could spell big trouble.

The labor market

10) Part-time America

St. Louis Federal Reserve

If you want to make your Obama-hating father-in-law happy, show him this chart of part-time (blue line) versus full-time (red line) jobs since the onset of the recession. It turns out that there are still fewer people working full-time jobs in 2015 than there were back in 2007, even though the population has grown. Part-time work goes into the job counts that are reported monthly in the press, and it brings down the unemployment rate — but the shortfall in full-time jobs also shows that the labor market recovery, thus far, has still been fairly weak.

11) The myth of part-time America

Ben Casselman/538

By contrast, if you want to put your Obama-hating father-in-law in his place, then show him this chart Ben Casselman did for FiveThirtyEight, which explodes the myth of part-time America. Casselman’s chart differs from the one above in two ways. One is that he starts his count at the beginning of the recovery, while the earlier chart started at the beginning of the recession. The other is that Casselman’s chart counts the absolute number of jobs, while the earlier chart was indexed to the levels that existed at the start of the recession. Combine those two changes and you get a very different picture. They are both, however, saying the same thing: an enormous number of full-time jobs vanished during the recession, and an almost equally large number have been created since it ended. At the same time, there’s been a modest increase in the number of part-time workers.

12) Ugh, another part-time work chart

St. Louis Federal Reserve

To be quite honest, I’m not sure what your father-in-law will make of this chart. But what it shows is that after shooting upward during the recession, the number of Americans who say they are involuntarily part-time due to an inability to find full time work (the blue line) has been trending steadily downward. By contrast, the number of people who say they are voluntarily working part-time has been trending upward. If you want to tie this to politics, you can say that Obama’s redistributive policies are making people lazy and reducing the inclination to work. A more plausible explanation is probably that America’s growing population of older people are increasingly opting for semi-retirement rather than fully leaving the workforce.

13) The best cities to find a job

Bureau of Labor Statistics

This map from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics divides American metropolitan areas into those with unemployment rates below the national average and those with above-average levels of unemployment. Texas is clearly a bright spot for jobs, though whether that will hold up once the collapse in oil prices starts showing up in the local unemployment data will be interesting to see. The knowledge economy hotspots of the San Francisco Bay Area, Greater Boston, and Minneapolis-St. Paul are all doing well, too, as is the area around Washington, DC. But the nation’s three largest metro areas — the regions surrounding New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — all suffer from above-average unemployment rates.

Health care

14) Obamacare in the balance

Kaiser Family Foundation

The authors of the Affordable Care Act in the US Senate envisioned a system in which most people would buy insurance through health insurance marketplaces created by state governments, with the option of a federally run marketplace as a backstop for states that for whatever reason decided they didn’t want to shape their own citizens’ health insurance experience. Republican politicians around the country turned out to be averse to establishing state exchanges, so federally run ones have ended up playing a much larger role in the system than was originally thought. That’s why the King v. Burwell litigation, in which the plaintiffs argue that only states with their own exchanges should be eligible for federal subsidies, is such a big deal. If the plaintiffs win, patients in the light blue states will all lose access to the money they need to buy Obamacare plans.

15) The politics of Medicaid

One aspect of Obamacare that lots of Republican governors like is the Medicaid expansion, which opens the public program to millions of low-income Americans. Medicaid is normally financed jointly by state and federal governments, but the terms offered by the ACA are extremely generous — essentially 100 percent of the incremental costs of expansion are picked up by the feds, while money to help hospitals out with unreimbursed care for the indigent is taken away. (The match drops to 90 percent, gradually, by 2017). Doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers are eager to get this money, which is one reason that governors have often been eager to embrace it. Of course, their GOP colleagues in the US Congress — and even in state legislatures — have often not been as eager.

16) The growth of health insurance


That the implementation of a law designed to reduce the number of uninsured Americans has, in fact, reduced the number of uninsured Americans is perhaps not so surprising. And yet, every single aspect of Obamacare has been so controversial and difficult that at times even this has been cast into doubt. It seems clear enough, though, that the law really is achieving its basic goal of drastically shrinking the uninsurance rate. Its ability to continue to do so in the future will hinge on the litigation and political debates in the previous two maps — but, for now, things are basically on track.

17) Pay less, get more

Health Affairs

Beyond expanding coverage, another major Obamacare goal was to restrain the trend toward ever-growing costs in the American health care system. It’s far from clear whether the Affordable Care Act has succeeded in this, but thus far critics who warned that the law would cause cost growth to explode appear to have been wrong. This chart from Health Affairs shows that overall spending growth has slowed despite an increase in the overall use of health care services. In other words, more people are able to get health care, but that hasn’t caused the price of health care services to explode. On the contrary, price growth has slowed down. Sarah Kliff calls it the ”pay less, get more” era of US health care, and it’s one of the most important trends of our time.

The geography of opportunity

18) Cost of living by city

Alan Cole, Lyman Stone, Tom VanAntwerp, Richard Borean/Tax Foundation

Common sense says that a dollar goes further in Manhattan, KS, than in Manhattan. This chart from the Tax Foundation attempts to give some rigor to that idea by using Bureau of Economic Analysis data on metro area price levels to show how far $100 can stretch in each county in the United States. There are a few different factors that drive prices. One is that very remote rural areas (see Maine, or even more so, Alaska) tend to have higher prices than rural areas that are more connected to the rest of the country. That reflects the logistical hassles of importing various goods. The other factor is that urban areas are systematically more expensive than rural ones. But there’s also huge variation between urban areas. The Boston-Washington corridor and the California coastline are much pricier than the cities of the South and Midwest. That’s overwhelmingly a question of housing costs. The size and geography of the big coastal cities has become unfriendly to further sprawl, while zoning restrictions in inner cities and central suburbs prevent new construction from keeping prices in check.

19) High-wage cities

Census Bureau

Incomes vary drastically from place to place across the United States. Large, relatively dense cities are generally home to high value-added industries that export goods across the country and around the world. Even for people who work in locally oriented markets, the ability to provide services — haircuts, restaurant meals, child care, medical care, education — to wealthy professionals raises incomes in these cities. Last but by no means least, workers are generally more productive in dense areas. Unfortunately, this map of economic opportunity looks pretty similar to the map of affordability above. Many Americans, in other words, could get a raise by moving to San Francisco or Boston, but they couldn’t afford to live there. Austin and Minneapolis stand out as metro areas that have median incomes that are high relative to their housing costs.

20) Where the poor can rise

Equality of Opportunity Project

Raj Chetty and his collaborators at the Equality of Opportunity Project made waves when they constructed this map showing the average percentile rank of children who grow up in below-median income families across areas of the United States. In plain language, it’s an index of economic mobility. In the light-shaded areas with high numbers, people born poor have a fair chance of ending up in the middle class. In the dark-shaded areas with low numbers, things are different — children who are born poor end up as poor adults who have poor children, with families stuck in multigenerational cycles of poverty. The geographical divide here is stark, and in some ways surprising. Broadly speaking, the South is a land of low mobility but Texas and Oklahoma are not. Ohio and Indiana look more like Alabama than Wisconsin.

21) Where people move

Greg Overberg

This map shows net domestic migration in the United States — in other words, where native-born Americans move and where they leave. The pattern that shows up here is pretty clear. People born in the Great Lakes, the Northeast, and California have a marked tendency to depart for Texas and the coastal southeast. When you add in the impact of international migration, things look quite a bit different for California, and somewhat different for Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, but there’s an even stronger trend for people to move to Texas and Florida. The appeal of warm weather and a low cost of living is easy to see, but there’s an unfortunate level of overlap between the places people are moving toward and the places with low levels of opportunity.

22) The rise of the top 0.01 percent

Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman

The Occupy Wall Street protests put the concept of “the 1 percent” on the public agenda. But this chart from economists Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman shows that even within this hallowed segment there are massive inequities. Focusing on the distribution of wealth rather than income, the chart shows that the bottom half of the top 1 percent has received essentially no gains since 1960 (they started out rich, though, so don’t be too worried). At the same time, since the mid-1970s the share of American wealth in the hands of the top 0.01 percent — about 32,000 households — has increased five-fold.

23) The most and least equal states


This shades the 50 states according to their Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of income inequality. The overall Gini coefficient for the United States of America is 0.469 — the same as the Gini for Texas — meaning that most states considered as states are more equal in their income distribution than the United States as a whole. But the exceptions include California, New York, and Florida, each of which is home to a large share of the population. The most egalitarian state is Utah, and in general you see high levels of income inequality in big cities (if the District of Columbia were a state, it would be the least equal). Lower levels of inequality exist in states such as New Hampshire and Wyoming, which lack major urban areas.

24) America is a bad place to be poor

Matt Bruenig

This is a table, rather than a map or even a chart — but it reveals something quite important. Using detailed financial data from the Luxembourg Income Study, Matt Bruenig shows where material living standards are higher than in the United States for people at different points on the income distribution. The median (i.e., 50th percentile) American is tied with the median Canadian to be the best-off median person in the world. But for the poorest ten percent of the population, life is better in 14 other countries. The United States is nearly the richest country on Earth on a per capita basis, but our material resources are distributed less equally than those in other English-speaking countries and much less equally than those of northern European countries. Consequently, while American living standards for people in the top half of the income distribution (i.e., the kind of people who run the political system and the media) are basically the best in the world, those for people in the bottom third are not so impressive.

25) The rising minimum wage

Even as Republicans swept to victory in the 2014 midterms, liberals consoled themselves with four winning ballot initiatives to raise state minimum wages. With those wins pocketed, a majority of states now set their minimum wage above the federal $7.25 minimum. Most empirical studies of minimum wage hikes show a small negative impact on employment levels, though there are some studies showing an increase in employment and some showing a large decrease. A large majority of studies show that minimum wage hikes increase incomes for the poor, and surveys of economists tend to show that professionals are moderately favorable to the idea of a higher minimum wage.

26) The distribution of income


People often talk about economic class in the United States as if income is normally distributed, with a big middle class in the center and small groups of rich and poor people on either side. As this chart shows, that’s really not the case. Households earning less than $10,000 a year are genuinely rare. But above that level, the income distribution is more like a pyramid where the poorest cohorts have the most members and 75 percent of the population earns less than $85,000 a year. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the real-world meaning of these different income levels varies quite a bit by circumstances. It’s one thing to earn $35,000 right out of college, another thing entirely to earn $35,000 while supporting children, and yet another thing to be a retiree earning $35,000 in investment income off previous savings.


27) The Common Core debate

Once upon a time, the Common Core was a nice, friendly, bipartisan issue supported by Democrats (Barack Obama!) and Republicans (Jeb Bush!) alike, with buy-in from teacher’s unions and major business groups. But American politics more and more operates as an engine of polarization rather than consensus-building, and the Common Core’s identification with the Obama administration has led to its increasing abandonment by actors on the right. This map of which states have and haven’t gotten on the bandwagon illustrates that tension. Most states, including some deeply conservative ones, have adopted the Common Core. But uptake isn’t universal, and, with the exception of Minnesota, it’s basically the conservative states that aren’t in compliance.

28) Racing to the top

National Council of State Legislatures

The Obama administration’s Race To The Top initiative never became a focus of national politics because it was folded into the 2009 stimulus rather than debated on its own terms. But this map illustrates just how big a deal it’s been for K-12 education around the country. The federal government has a pretty narrow role in primary and secondary education, but Obama made money available to states — at a time when state governments were badly strapped — that aligned their laws and practices with the administration’s preferences. The option to simply say no and change nothing existed, but the vast majority of states decided that they wanted to try to get their hands on some funds and shifted their policies accordingly.

29) Where the college graduates are

US Census Bureau

This map, using American Community Survey data to track high county-level concentrations of college graduates, explains a lot about the United States. You can see that, generally speaking, big cities are better educated than rural areas. But you also see that rural areas in New England — especially Vermont, but also New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, and southern Maine — generally have more bachelor’s degrees than rural areas elsewhere. Racial and ethnic demographics play a huge role in US politics, but when you restrict your attention to heavily white areas, those with more college graduates are generally much more liberal.


30) A less white nation — maybe

Gwen Sharp

American demographics have shifted dramatically over the past several decades and are projected to continue changing in roughly the same direction in the decades to come. That means a small increase in the black share of the population, paired with fairly rapid increases in the Latino and Asian population shares. This is often cast as indicating that the United States will soon be a “majority-minority” country, like California and Hawaii are today. On the other hand, the ways in which race is socially constructed have evolved in the past and will likely evolve again. Conceptions of whiteness have broadened and expanded over time to become more inclusive of people of Irish, Italian, and Jewish ancestry. It is plausible — especially given relatively high intermarriage rates — that many people who are presently considered Asian or Latino will be considered white by 2050.

31) The rise of border enforcement

border militarization map Joss Fong/Vox

Given the attention paid to unauthorized migration across the US-Mexico border, people often assume there was some “old days” in which the border was “under control.” The truth is actually quite the opposite. Traditionally, the southern border was relatively unpoliced (much like the border with Canada is today) and people crossed back and forth without much difficulty. Increased border enforcement has made border crossing more of a permanent commitment, which has raised the stakes on the American side and fueled more investment in enforcement. Today, a small army of border patrol agents works in the US Southwest, trying to prevent people from moving north in search of better jobs.

32) Segregation in St. Louis

Eric Fischer

Despite the increasing diversity of the United States as a country, day-to-day life in American communities remains intensely segregated. Eric Fischer made a series of beautiful-but-telling maps of various metro areas, based on Census data that illustrates this reality. Greater St. Louis — where African Americans are concentrated downtown, on the north side, and then in a band of contiguous suburbs stretching north from the city — is not so unusual in this regard, though the events in Ferguson, Missouri, over the summer make it noteworthy. What’s really striking about these maps, however, is that even though the color patterns change — some cities have many more Asians or Latinos than St. Louis — the basic impression of highly segregated lives does not.

33) The world leader in immigration

About 13 countries are home to more immigrants on a per capita basis than the United States. But in raw terms, the United States is by far the world’s largest immigration destination. The United States is in something of a sweet spot of population size and income. Canada welcomes slightly more immigrants per capita, but is simply a much smaller country; China has a gigantic population, but, despite its recent growth success, it’s still much too poor to be an attractive destination for migrants.


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