Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

What Europeans don't know about Americans could fill a southbound moving truck


Is the South really the worst place to live? According to an agency based in Paris -- that's France, not Texas -- the answer is yes.

That agency is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD is sometimes called the world's club of industrialized nations, and you may have seen me refer to it from time to time. That's because, when one looks for a group of countries at least somewhat comparable to the U.S., the OECD is about as good as it gets.

The policy recommendations from OECD staff, however, are another matter. The OECD advocates for, among other things , tax-harmonization laws -- which would have the effect of making it easier for more governments to charge ever-higher taxes to support ever-larger welfare states. They are emblematic of the bien pensants in Europe and on the left side of the political spectrum here in America, those who do not even question the merits of a large, centralized government.

All of which probably explains why the aforementioned OECD rankings of our 50 states, plus D.C., drew so much attention. As the Washington Post's Roberto A. Ferdman summarized in a piece about the recent rankings , which used a scale of zero to 90:

"The report ranked all 50 states (plus the District) according to nine different measures of well-being: health, safety, housing, access to broadband, civic engagement, education, jobs, environment, and income. ...

"(T)here are a number of states -- all of them in the South -- you might want to avoid. Mississippi, which scored lower than any other state, barely broke 50. Arkansas and Alabama, which tied for second to last, each scored 51.3. West Virginia, which was fourth to last, scored 52.2. And Tennessee, which was fifth to last, scored 52.9.

"The South, which performed the worst of any region in the country, is home to eight of the poorest performing states. Only Virginia was in the top 25. And just barely — it placed 22nd."

That piece portrayed the South as so bad that another Post blog published a piece by a Charlotte-based author titled, "Is the South really as bad as a report says it is?". But there's a very straightforward way to demonstrate that our Parisian evaluators are off-base.

The Census Bureau not only reports annual population estimates for each state. It also attempts to explain where each state's population growth -- or loss -- comes from. There are natural causes (births vs. deaths) but there's also migration, both domestic and international.

Looking at the most recent data , covering 2010 to 2013, we can see whether Americans are choosing to move to the higher-ranked states and/or away from the lower-ranked states. And the answer is:

No way, no how, no matter which way you slice it.

  • Seven of the 10 highest-ranked states lost population; seven of the 10 lowest-ranked states gained population.
  • The top one-third of states (including D.C.) gained a total of 137,430 people during those three-plus* years. The bottom one-third gained 615,884 people. (Yes, that means the middle third lost the sum of those two totals.)
  • The average OECD score for the 25 states (including D.C.) that gained population was 61. The average score for the 26 states that lost population was 64.3.
  • Depending on how one defines "the South" -- I'll use the Census Bureau's definitions here -- five of the top seven states for population gain are located in our region. Those five states alone received two-thirds of the nation's internal migrants. Kentucky, Maryland and Mississippi were the only Southern states to lose population during those three years.

In fact, just look at each of the four census regions compare:

  • The highest-ranked region was the Northeast, with an average score of 68.4. All nine states in that region lost population, for a total net migration of minus-624,511.
  • The next highest-ranked region was the Midwest, with an average score of 65.9. Ten of its 12 states lost population, for a total net migration of minus-522,773.
  • Next was the West, at an average score of 64.6. Nine of its 13 states gained population, for a total net migration of 139,781.
  • And last, but not least in the eyes of Americans from elsewhere, was the South, with an average score of just 55.9. Yet, 14 of its 17 states gained population, for a total net migration of 1,031,967.
  • Even if you take away the two largest gainers, Texas and Florida, the South gained more than twice as many people as the runner-up West region.

Maybe, just maybe, nos amis at the OECD don't really know what Americans are looking for when it comes to the good life.

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* - The census data actually measure the change from April 1, 2010 (the date of the 2010 census) to July 1, 2013 (because the annual estimates between censuses use July 1 as a measuring point).

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ADDED at 2:20 p.m.: Carol Guthrie, head of the OECD's Washington Center and a Southerner herself, asked me to bring to y'all's attention a piece she wrote (also for the Post) about what the agency's rankings do and don't mean. You can read that piece in its entirety , but I'll include a relevant excerpt here about the recent "How's Life in Your Region" report:

"One thing we don't measure is perhaps the South's most abundant natural resource: Southerners' appreciation for living there.

"The data don't cover satisfaction (although our national-level Better Life Index does) or how we feel about home. They present objective criteria that underpin economic as well as physical well-being, including things that make our regions more or less competitive and able to provide vibrant quality of life.

"The data, and the ability to compare it, are not tendered as criticism; they're tools. What we offer is the leverage of cold, hard facts to policymakers and citizens looking to bring about change."

I still think the disparity between the rankings and domestic migration patterns speaks for itself. But it's entirely fair for Guthrie to point out that the South-bashing that followed the report's release was done by others, not the OECD itself.


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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.