In the hardest places to live in the United States, people spend a lot of time thinking about diets and religion. In the easiest places to live, people spend a lot of time thinking about cameras.
This summer, The Upshot conducted an analysis of every county in the country to determine which were the toughest places to live, based on an index of six factors including income, education and life expectancy. Afterward, we heard from Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, who suggested looking at how web searches differ on either end of our index.
The results, based on a decade of search data, offer a portrait of the very different subjects that occupy the thoughts of richer America and poorer America. They’re a glimpse into the id of our national inequality.
In the hardest places to live – which include large areas of Kentucky, Arkansas, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon – health problems, weight-loss diets, guns, video games and religion are all common search topics. The dark side of religion is of special interest: Antichrist has the second-highest correlation with the hardest places, and searches containing “hell” and “rapture” also make the top 10.
To be clear, these aren’t the most common searches in our list of hardest places. They’re the searches with the highest correlation to our index. Searches on some topics, like Oprah Winfrey or the Super Bowl, are popular almost everywhere. The terms on these lists are relatively common subjects for web searches in one kind of place — and rarely a subject in the other.
In the easiest places to live, the Canon Elph and other digital cameras dominate the top of the correlation list. Apparently, people in places where life seems good, including Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming and much of the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast, want to record their lives in images.
One explanation is that cameras have remained a top-selling piece of technology throughout the last decade. “A few years from now, the distinguishing feature may be iPhones,” predicts Mr. Varian, a former professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped design Google’s online advertising auctions.
Beyond cameras, subjects popular in the easiest places include Baby Joggers, Baby Bjorns and baby massage; Skype and Apple devices like the iPod Nano; a piece of workout equipment known as a foam roller; and various foreign destinations (Machu Picchu, New Zealand, Switzerland and Pyeongchang, the South Korean host city for the 2018 Winter Olympics). The phrase “pull-out” is also relatively popular in the easiest places. It presumably refers to either a kind of sofa or a kind of birth control.
There is evidence of the nation’s cultural divide in the results, with “Zoolander” (a 2001 movie starring Ben Stiller) and Vengaboys (a Dutch dance-pop band) popular in the easiest places and Kenneth Nixon, of the rock band Framing Hanley, popular in the hardest places.
There is also modest evidence of a contrast that academic sociologists have noted between the relative importance of individuality in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and community in working-class neighborhoods.
“Holiday greetings” are a popular search term in the easiest places, especially California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. In many of these areas, people no longer live near most of their relatives or childhood friends – and need to send holiday cards with updates on their lives. These are also the places where people would seem most likely to order personalized greeting cards online, chock-full of family photos, or to send digital cards.
By contrast, across much of the South, stretching from Oklahoma to Kentucky to Georgia, “holiday greetings” were a relatively rare search term. These are also the states where the population is still dominated by native residents, as well as places where “Merry Christmas” may be a more popular wish than “Happy Holidays.”
Another such tidbit: “baby shower cake ideas” was a popular search subject in the hardest places, while “best cupcake” – that single-serving-size version of a dessert that used to be shared – was common in the easiest places.
For all the ways that the differences here may simply reflect cultural preferences, however, the main lesson of the analysis is a sobering one. The rise of inequality over the last four decades has created two very different Americas, and life is a lot harder in one of them.
Income has stagnated in working-class communities, which helps explain why “selling avon” and “social security checks” correlate with the hardest places from our index. Inequality in health and life expectancy has grown over the same time. And searches on diabetes, lupus, blood pressure, 1,500-calorie diets and “ssi disability” – a reference to the federal benefits program for workers with health problems – also make the list. Guns, meanwhile, are in part a cultural preference, but they are also a health risk.
Given all these troubles, you can understand why religious web searches that are relatively more popular in places where life is harder have such a dark cast. “They are not just about religion but about apocalyptic religion,” notes Dan Silver, a cultural sociologist at the University of Toronto.
In the places on the other end of the spectrum, the picture is much brighter. People have disposable income to buy new technology and take faraway vacations. Their time spent prostrate on a foam roller or out running with the baby in a jogging stroller is more than enough to make up the occasional cupcake. And of course they are intent on passing down their way of life to the next generation, via Baby Bjorns and early access to technology.
That last point may be the most troubling. The different subjects that occupy people’s thoughts aren’t just a window into American life today. They’re a window onto future inequality, too.
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