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Ahead of the 2008 presidential election, journalist Dante Chinni crisscrossed the country interviewing people in cities and towns big and small. With the help of statistics expert James Gimpel of the University of Maryland, Chinni separated the nation’s 3,141 counties into 12 distinct communities. Along the way, Chinni discovered what he calls “surprising truths about the real America.” Today we’ll learn about those communities — how they’re evolving and what their citizens are concerned about as we approach midterm elections.
- Dante Chinni correspondent for the Patchwork Nation Project for PBS NewsHour and the Christian Science Monitor; author of "Our Patchwork Nation."
- John Hansen grain manager, Sioux Center (Iowa) Farmers Cooperative Society.
- Edward Pratt media relations director, Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; former journalist and editor.
- Kathy Heicher former editor, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, Eagle, Colorado; author of "Early Eagle."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Ahead of the 2008 presidential election, journalist Dante Chinni crisscrossed the country interviewing people in towns, big and small. With the help of a statistics expert, he separated the nation's counties into 12 distinct communities. Along the way, Chinni discovered what he calls "surprising truths about the real America." Today, we'll learn about those communities, how they're evolving, what their citizens are concerned about as we approach midterm elections. Joining me in the studio, journalist Dante Chinni, director of the Patchwork Nation Project and author of a new book, "Our Patchwork Nation." Dante, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DANTE CHINNIThank you for having me.
ROBERTSYou can, as always, join us at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org is our e-mail address. Explain this project, Dante. What was sort of behind the design here?
CHINNIWell, it was -- as 2008 was approaching and we had a sense it was gonna be, you know, an important election. I don't know if we knew it's gonna be as changing in some ways as it was.
ROBERTSAnd you work for the Christian Science Monitor, Dante?
CHINNIYeah. Well, and at that time, actually I was actually working at the Project for Excellence in Journalism and I spent a lot of time covering the media and how the media does and doesn't do its job right. And one of the things that really drives you crazy is the red and blue map. And, you know, there's nothing inherently long with the red and blue map in terms of figuring out who won and lost. We -- you know, we have to keep score. Red and blue map is...
ROBERTSParticularly if you got statewide elections (laugh).
CHINNIExactly, yeah. And, you know, and ultimately, you're going to vote, and usually you've got to vote for the red guy or the blue guy, and that's fine. But the problem is the significance that we have invested in that map.
CHINNIAnd I think the media does this and I think it bleeds into the culture as well. And we say that, well, I'm from a blue state, I'm from a red state, as if that means anything, as if -- you know, red America includes Orange County, Calif. and it includes rural Nebraska. And blue America -- I mean, I grew up in Michigan. Blue America includes Detroit and includes Ann Arbor. You know, those places are maybe what, 30, 40 miles apart. And they're worlds apart.
CHINNII mean, they both vote Democratic, but what does that really tell you about the place? So that's what we want to get at.
ROBERTSYou know, and one of the interesting elements of this design is that so many of the attempts to create topographies in American politics in recent years have focused on groups of voters.
ROBERTSAnd you're looking at geography, which some people will say was almost an old fashioned idea.
CHINNIYeah, and that's a really good point. I mean, there's three things -- I'll explain how we did it in a second, but there's three things, I think, I really took away from doing this project. And one is, despite what we all wanna think, place still matters in America.
CHINNIWhere you live matters because of the influences you have around you every day, the specific economy you live in, the specific culture you live in. That's the first thing. The second thing is place matters more now, I think, than it did even 20, 30 years ago and in part because of what's happened with our technology. There's this feeling that, you know, like, wow, it's really great because now, wherever I go, I can have my iPhone with me and I can read the New York Times while I'm sitting in a cornfield in Iowa, you know, provided you get reception.
CHINNIYou know, that's wonderful, but fact of the matter is most people don't do that. And most people who live in a small community in Iowa are dealing with different kinds of stresses in their lives, different kinds of issues that affect their lives and that leads them to make certain choices in the media. And they have more choices to choose from now. I mean...
CHINNI...there was a time when if I went from Washington, Iowa, I watch ABC, NBC, CBS and when I got out to Iowa, I watch ABC, NBC or CBS. Those are my choices.
ROBERTSBut one of the ironies, really, about the new technology is it's very creative and fertile new system, which can -- if you choose, can broaden your world enormously. It can also be used to narrow your world if you simply tune into the websites or the broadcasters who...
ROBERTS...who reinforce your prejudices and what you already believe.
CHINNIThat’s absolutely right. And that's what we talked about even in the book. We talked about living in a bubble.
CHINNIAnd we all have a bubble that we live in. And what we do is we take that and we broaden it out to community. Communities live in bubbles because everybody is dealing with certain kinds of realities. I mean, they live in different realities. I'm telling you, if you go out to rural Iowa, which I do, that is a different reality than living in Washington, D.C. Just the daily life is different. And so what we did is we took all the counties in the country, 3,141 of them, used every scrap of demographic data we could find to cluster them into different types.
CHINNIWe ended up with 12 types because we wanted somewhere between 10 and 15. We thought beyond 15, it starts to become a mess in terms of people being able to understand it. And when you broke it down that way, we ended up with these 12 types and we mapped them county by county. We kind of think of them as, you know, 12 discontiguous United States of America.
ROBERTSBut one of the -- tell me, as you looked at variables...
ROBERTS...and you looked at many...
ROBERTS...what were some of the variables that really you found particularly instructive? I mean, you make a kind of a big deal of is there or is there not a Starbucks, but...
CHINNIRight, right, right.
ROBERTS...talk about, you know, some of the ways in which you really saw distinctive differences according to certain fault lines.
CHINNIWell, once -- once we broke things down this way, we originally did it to watch the election. But we realized that once you break the country down this way, you can do it to look at anything. And it's been particularly instructive, I think, when you look at the economy. We like to think that there are these national numbers for GDP and unemployment, foreclosures, and there are. And they -- hey, they tell us something about the fate of the country, that's fine.
CHINNIBut when you really get down to it, those numbers are obstructions. And nobody lives in that world. So the foreclosure number, in some parts -- there is no foreclosure problem in Tractor Country, this rural part of America. It's like .03 foreclosures for every 100,000 homes, you know? And their unemployment is rate is 5.3 percent. Who wouldn't want an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent right now? That's their reality. That's the world they live in. So they watch the news at night and what they see doesn't really comport to that.
CHINNISo economic figures are really telling and a lot of cultural numbers. We were able to look at what media people listen to, what they read, what they see at the movies. These things are really different from place to place and they define -- again, they define different realities that people in America live in different communities.
ROBERTSI was always struck in looking at the polling numbers over numbers over the years. And one of the variables that really seem to correlate with political views was religious attention and that -- this is one of the elements you look at. There are several of your demograph groups...
ROBERTS..that are defined into a greater or lesser extent by religious practice.
CHINNIEven that, though, it's really interesting. It's very true. We have a group called the Evangelical Epicenters and those are kind of smaller, less wealthy somewhat rural locations with high evangelical adherence, obviously, but when you look at the number of people, if you ask them -- regular religious attendance that, you know, -- that number is also very high in the big cities and that's at -- in the counties we call the industrial metropolis.
CHINNISo we tend to sometimes forget that, you know, people in big cities, African Americans in particular, are big churchgoers and that -- does create some kind of frame of reference for those places, but I think definitely the Evangelical Epicenters and the Mormon outposts -- we do have a group just for Mormons and I can explain why later if anybody's interested. It's a little complicated. But those places really are kind of defined by the -- not only the faith in those places, but the way the faith really creates the community there.
ROBERTSAnd one of the -- here in Washington, D.C., one of the groups that is certainly very important in the demographics around here and has been very important in the recent political development, it's what you call the Monied Burbs or the money suburbs. You know, around Washington, you got half a dozen of the richest counties...
ROBERTS...in America, but you also point out this is the largest -- of the 12 groups, this is the largest and it also has been critical in swinging elections back and forth. Talk about that group in that community.
CHINNIYeah, we actually -- we have this -- we have a section of the book where we talking politics. One thing we talked about is three of these community types where the vote really swings and one of them is the Monied Burbs. And, you know, John Kerry won this Monied Burb, kind of. So a kind of wealthy suburban counties. They generally exist outside of the big city county. So yeah, you know, you think of the counties around Cook County in Illinois.
CHINNIJohn Wayne County in Michigan and here, of course.
ROBERTSMarin County, Calif.
CHINNIAbsolutely. All -- a lot of area around San Francisco Bay Area. In those places, what do they have? Well, they're wealthy. They tend to be much less tethered to a particular political identity. They're really willing -- when the election comes along, that's where they end up beyond the undecided independent voter. They're really going to look at what the situation is and say, this is -- I'm gonna vote for this guy this year. That's not really true in a lot of these other communities where it doesn't really matter what the economic situation is in like the Evangelical Epicenters. They're gonna vote the way they're gonna vote.
CHINNITractor Country, they're gonna vote the way they're gonna vote. These Monied Burbs, most people live there and they swing and they're critical. They were critical -- I mean, Barrack Obama won them by 10 points. John Kerry won them by a percentage point. You could really argue that it was the Monied Burbs that propelled Obama to victory.
ROBERTSAnd the Democrats, to win majority in Congress, going back to 2006 even before the 2008 election, a lot of the districts they picked up...
ROBERTS...were outside of Philadelphia, outside the suburban Connecticut. Districts very much like what you are describing and one of the things that I've noticed over the years as a political reporter that one of the reasons why those districts are untethered, as you point out, is because often people have moved there from somewhere else.
ROBERTSAnd therefore, they have become unattached from the mediating institutions that help define them as young people. The churches, the unions...
ROBERTS...the community institutions and so they have -- they remade themselves, in a way.
CHINNIThat's right. Yeah, yeah, I think it's absolutely...
ROBERTSAnd, you know, I remember going to 1980 in Hoffman Estate near O'Hare Airport.
ROBERTSAnd every single person there had been from somewhere else and had redefined hers or his political identity as a result of it.
CHINNIRight and then the place they move develops this identity. That's -- and that's something we really, you know, you get at when you break down unconsciously. And so the place they move develops this identity of people from other places that kind of bring in their own ideas and there's a real mix. I mean, there's another book by a terrific -- a terrific book called "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop that goes into people living by like-minded people and you do see a lot of that, particularly in those Monied Burb areas.
ROBERTSNow, also talk about the boomtown. So we're gonna bring on in a minute after our break, a woman from Eagle, Colo., but give us a background to this particular group.
CHINNIThat's funny, we came up with this -- these characterizations in 2008 and those places were booming then. You could almost call them formerly boomtowns now. These are places that are really...
ROBERTSNew ghost towns (laugh).
CHINNI(laugh) Yeah, or bust towns -- somebody said, why don't you call them bust towns? They're not quite all bust towns yet, but they're places in the first half of the last decade really got the full impact of the housing boom, so they grew and they really changed. And those places -- particularly, also, the culture of those places changed dramatically. And it’s a lot of young families who wanted a little more house with a little less danger, you know?
MS. KATHY HEICHERMoving out into the ex-urban areas and they've just been hammered. And they've been hammered by the foreclosure problem. And I -- we're gonna talk to Kathy out in Eagle. It's not necessarily throughout there, but we've looked at Tea Party membership. These are real bastions for the Tea Party right now. This is where most Tea Party meet-ups are and where the most Tea Party members are. This is where the anger is deepest.
ROBERTSAnd also, these are places where people banks gave loans...
ROBERTS...without knowing who their customers were. One of the things you pointed about Tractor Country, the banks -- one of their (word?) things that insulated them from this is the banks knew their customers, not true in the boomtown.
CHINNIYeah, the Tractor Country -- I talked to a banker in Sioux Center, Iowa, he says, I literally drove by -- I can literally drive by Bob's house if he's applying for a loan and look at what the situation is on his farm.
ROBERTSNot true in Eagle, Colo., where we're gonna go and -- soon as we come back with Dante Chinni. So stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane and my guest this hour is journalist Dante Chinni. He's co-author of a new book "Our Patchwork Nation" with demographer James Gimpel. The -- and the subtitle is "The Surprising Truth about the Real America," the 12 community types that make up our nation. We got some lines open. Give us a call to Dante Chinni, 1-800-433-8850. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
ROBERTSAnd as we were discussing with Dante, he -- having broken these 12 geographical areas, one is called boomtowns and he's picked sort of a paradigm city or town in each one of these areas that represents it. And he's gone back many times to each of these towns and one of them is Eagle, Colo. And we have on the phone with us a veteran journalist and former editor of the local paper, Kathy Heicher, out there in Eagle at the Eagle Valley Enterprise. Kathy, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
HEICHERWell, thank you. I'm happy to be here.
ROBERTSNow, give us a bit of the background here. Dante was starting to talk about the enormous growth that Eagle experienced. It's near some of the famous ski resorts like Vail and Beaver Creek. And who are the people who came in here, and how did they change the town?
HEICHERThe -- in the past 10 years, the population of Eagle has doubled from about 3,000 to 6,000 people. The people who came in are mostly young adults, young families. Many of them were connected with the construction industry, architects, contractors and so forth, but also looking for an outdoor lifestyle. We live in the mountains. There's plenty of skiing, mountain biking, hiking, whatever appeals to them here.
ROBERTSAnd how did they change the character of the town?
HEICHERThey changed the way the town operates. They have different kinds of priorities, different generation. When I came here in the -- 1972, it was all backpackers, hunters and fishermen. These people like more organized sports, like mountain bike races...
HEICHER...organized mountain bike rides. They liked to run in groups, organized groups and so forth. They're younger. They filled the schools, created need for new elementary schools...
HEICHER...and just generally changed the culture of the town. Less -- less -- it used to be you can always predict what was -- who was gonna win an election in Eagle. There's so many new people now it's impossible to predict. You don't know how they're gonna vote.
ROBERTSNow, also, so much of the economy of a town like that was based on the growth itself, on construction. You mentioned architects. You mentioned -- I'm sure there were people who supplied the new houses with furniture and plumbers and -- and as the economic boom started to dissipate and people started running into foreclosure problems, describe how that -- sort of that virus ran through the lifeblood of Eagle.
HEICHERPeople are struggling here. Quite a few of them had really beautiful houses and stuff. They were making good wages in some construction industry related job and then suddenly, that just dried up. And many people are struggling these days, many young families, to make their mortgage payments. There's many foreclosures going on. Some are having to leave.
ROBERTSAnd there also was a group Dante writes about in the book of construction workers, mainly Hispanics, who were drawn by the jobs. I gather some are still there, but some have left.
HEICHERRight. Many have left. You can tell the difference where -- town officials see the differences in traffic numbers and so forth. Those are way down. School numbers, children in school are down somewhat. Oddly enough, the jail numbers are down. The county jail had needed to expand because they were overflowing. They got their expansion built and then suddenly, they really didn't have the inmates to keep it full.
ROBERTSBut also, tax revenues must be down. I mean, city services must be suffering as a result.
HEICHERYes. Tax revenues are down. Sales tax, notably. Colorado is notoriously dependent on sales taxes. Our property taxes are not high compared to other people or other states. But yeah, sales taxes are way down. Both county and town government have had to do some layoffs and to really trim their budget. It's gone from being able to build extras like ice rinks and swimming pools to just probably being able to take care of the roads and just keep the basic operations going.
ROBERTSKathy, let me ask you a final question. If we, you and me and Dante, were sitting in a cafe in Eagle for lunch today, what would people be talking about over at the lunch table?
HEICHERThe economy. They'd be talking about the economy and can it come back. And probably also the elections, you know. Probably, you know, who they're gonna vote for and stuff. It's probably not Democrat so much this time around.
ROBERTSAnd of course, you've got to nationally watch Senate race in Colorado this year and you think Eagle is the kind of town that has -- might have voted Democratic in recent elections, but is tending more Republican this year?
HEICHERThat would be my guess that it's gonna tend more Republican. We have a lot of unaffiliated voters here. The number of unaffiliated voters slightly outnumbers either registered Republicans or registered Democrats. And last election, they went Democrat. They were big Obama supporters. I don't think they're gonna go Democrat this time.
ROBERTSKathy Heicher, she's a veteran journalist. She's a former editor of the Eagle Valley Enterprise in Eagle, Colo. Thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
HEICHERI'm glad to be there.
ROBERTSThanks so much. Dante, when you listen to Kathy, you -- I know that you know her. You've interviewed her in the past...
ROBERTS...for your project. What's your reaction to her account of -- from Eagle this morning?
CHINNIIt definitely comports with what I've seen. I mean, I was just in Eagle this August and you have a town -- you have an entire city where everything was built on construction and it's real interesting when the rug gets pulled out from there, all those people who were doing HVAC, carpentry, landscaping, they all bought bigger homes because times were good and all of a sudden, their money's gone and it's really interesting to watch and I think -- there -- you know, there are these boomtowns. A lot of this -- this is Las Vegas, this is Clark County, Nev., this is Riverside County, Calif. on a much larger scale. What happens to a community like that when the entire thing is built on construction, the rug's pulled out?
ROBERTSAnd you said the Starbucks closed.
CHINNIYeah, it's kind of amazing, actually. The Starbucks closed.
ROBERTSHow could that happen?
CHINNII don't know. Something's terribly wrong in America, but the interesting thing is it closed a year ago now. And when we first went there and it recently closed, they're like, well, something will be in here very shortly. And it's -- the last time I was back, it's still empty, which is -- you know, just to be clear, Eagle doesn't look like Detroit, okay? It doesn't look like -- it's not like it's -- it still looks and feels like a wealthy community, but it's -- you know, the Starbucks is closed and the expensive Italian restaurant when I first went there is not -- no longer an expensive -- it's, you know, 9.95, all the pasta you can eat and it's not in our garden. I mean, it's a local place, but it's just changed. The culture of the place has just changed.
ROBERTSNow, when that happens, Dante, when these extraordinary hopes and beliefs...
ROBERTS...that things will continue to get better -- as you say, the whole town is predicated under the notion this will keep getting better.
ROBERTSNow, when that stops -- you talk about it -- it's like a game of musical chairs. (laugh). The music stops.
ROBERTSThat has to affect not just the ability to buy at Starbucks or the ability to spend money in an Italian restaurant. It's gotta affect people's mindsets, too.
ROBERTSNow, talk about that.
CHINNIThe psyche of the place. It's -- there's -- it's really -- when I was back there in August this summer, I talked to a woman who used to do close -- closings. She was the -- you know, when you...
ROBERTSTitle work, title work.
CHINNIShe did that job and she saw all these people coming through the first time and they were buying these huge houses and it's just like it was so wonderful and she felt envious of them, she felt jealous of them. And then she saw, a year later, them were all coming through and doing short sales and figuring out what to do on foreclosures and she was so affected, she was so affected psychologically she quit the work. She just quit. She's like, I can't do it. It's too depressing. And when you talk to people there, I -- you know, I've been going there since January of 2008. When I was there, it was just nothing is gonna -- this recession is not gonna touch us. Everybody here is too wealthy. When I went back this summer, it's just, how -- you know, how do you feel? It's awful, it's awful. This is hard times.
ROBERTSYou know, I've been thinking about this a lot during this political campaign and as we all know with current politics, that optimism is a quintessential American...
ROBERTS...quality and that the great communicators of our age have understood that, whether it was Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton...
ROBERTS...or in many ways, Barack Obama.
ROBERTSHope was an optimistic idea and as part of what's happening to Obama and, in general, in the political landscape here, that people just don't see this as a blip. They don't -- it's not just...
ROBERTS...that they say, well, times are tough in Eagle, but they'll get better...
ROBERTS...that the sense of -- that the jobs will come back, whether it's in the auto plant in Detroit, whether it's in the construction industry in Eagle, it's that sense of optimism that has had adding an extra dimension to the sourness of the national mood.
CHINNII think that's absolutely correct and I think that -- first of all, I will say that having looked at these places and looked at the economy in these places -- I've been looking at these numbers now for two years. They're right that it's not a blip, first of all. There's something else going on and it -- there's a larger economic construction going on and we're going to be living different lives, I think, in 10 years, but the optimism is there, but it's been shaken.
CHINNII mean, we talk at the end of this book because a lot of people have asked me, well, when you do this, don't you just -- do you sometimes feel the country's just coming apart at the seams and there's nothing that holds it together anymore? And that is -- you know, you do kind of get that feeling if you travel these places. Sometimes I wonder, how do you govern this country? Because these people all want different things. These communities all need different things. But the one thing that really is there are still, 66 percent of everybody in every community, according to a Pew Research poll that we've crunched with these numbers, say that they're still think that you can get ahead if you work hard in America.
ROBERTSYeah. Let me ask you about another group, another demographic you isolate called Minority Central.
ROBERTSThese are areas that often heavily African American in the central city, but mixed areas. Talk about that, the defining characteristics of that group and then we'll go to Baton Rouge, La.
CHINNIAnd talk to Ed. Minority Central, it's -- and I know it's kind of a -- it's not the best name. It's because we actually -- we went out West and we included some native American counties in this as well, because the same rules apply in some ways, the same characteristics apply. You have populations that are really divided, so it's not that they're predominantly -- particularly Baton Rouge. It's not that it's predominantly African American, it's fairly evenly split.
CHINNIBut because of that, the people -- particularly in Baton Rouge, it's really fascinating, live in different worlds, the white and the black populations there. It's not that there's necessarily a lot of tensions, they just don't get along. They don't deal with each other. You know, the city is pretty evenly split between blacks and whites. The schools are 80 percent black because the whites -- the white families down there have opted out and put their kids in Catholic schools -- a lot of them, it's Louisiana -- and private schools and they're really two different realities, so -- and they have to acknowledge each other, but they don't work together at all.
CHINNIAnd there are, obviously some tensions because a lot of these places, there are issues between -- they are not -- generally, they're not fairly wealthy places. So you're talking about people competing for jobs, competing for livelihoods. And just naturally, tensions rise and there's an other -- and those things happen.
ROBERTSNow, on the phone with us is Ed Pratt. He's the media relations director for Southern University in Baton Rouge. Ed Pratt, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. EDWARD PRATTHello. How are you all doing?
ROBERTSGreat. And give us a sense of what's on the minds of people in Baton Rouge today.
PRATTA couple of things. One, I would think, a little bit would be crime, would be one of the things because we've had a rash of violent crimes here over the past several months. And also, budget cuts to higher education and to health care here. We're going through a huge budget cuts to higher education. My school, Southern University, along with Louisiana State University here and other schools in the state are just -- are suffering right now because of state budget cuts.
ROBERTSAnd that's a result of the economic problems, declining tax revenues and they're just not...
PRATTDeclining tax revenues and other issues. At one time, there was a tax that was set aside called the Stelly Tax that provided a lot of money to higher education and that tax was repealed. So now you have -- I think there was something over $300 million or so and that is now gone. And so with decline in revenues for the state and also the cuts that is gonna be coming from the -- the stimulus funds that are gonna go away, now you have a big problem with funding to higher education.
ROBERTSSo part of what you're saying, Ed, is that here in Washington, there's a lot of talk and all around the country on the campaign trail about the necessity of cutting budgets. And the federal deficit is trillion and a half dollars. There's a lot of pressure on the budget, but what you're telling us is every dollar that gets cut is gonna have an effect on a place like Southern University.
PRATTWell, it's doubly bad for smaller schools like ours, which on -- by every estimate, we don't generally get a lot of money from the state government. And to have that cut even more -- and it's been cut several times over the past two years, something to the tune of 18 to $22 million cut from our budget and the other schools have suffered, too. But because of a long history of being underfunded at a historically black college, this is -- these budget cuts are doubly bad for us.
ROBERTSNow, talk about Baton Rouge beyond the borders of southern -- one of the things I've read, that Dante Chinni has been writing about, is that you've also suffered a decline of some big industries and that the power of unions in a town like Baton Rouge is less than it was. And talk about sort of the political makeup of the town today and how you expect it to vote this year.
PRATTWell, you know, Baton Rouge is interesting. Well, East Baton Rouge is parish -- I guess you would call that a county where you're from -- is an odd mix. The city is probably as close to 50/50, black, white and we have an African American mayor. And the mayor is the mayor of the entire county. Now -- and he's a Democrat, but I would think that the parish is tending to vote Republican, so -- because we have a lot of the -- the white population has moved to the suburbs, which is -- to some of the other cities. They make up the entire parish. So that's what you're gonna see. You're gonna see...
PRATT...probably a large vote for a Republican candidate.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ed Pratt, a final point. I've been asking everybody this. If we -- if Dante and you and I went to your favorite local place for lunch in an hour or two, what would you -- we be hearing at the lunch tables? What would people be talking about today in Baton Rouge?
PRATTAs I said before, probably two things. One, the unusual rash of violent crimes...
PRATT...that we've had here and -- which authorities can't do anything about. These are like one-on-one type of things that are just bad. It's one of those irrational things that are happening. And also, how we're gonna be affected by these budget cuts. There's proposals about layoffs at -- not only to colleges here, but some of the health care facilities here.
PRATTSo there's always some concern when you're talking about laying people off and where they're gonna go. What's gonna happen to us? What's gonna happen to our families and that sort of thing.
ROBERTSEd Pratt, he's media relations director for Southern University, a historically black college. He's also a long-time journalist and editor. Thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show" today, Ed.
ROBERTSDante, we're hearing echoes in both of these places of basically the same anxieties.
CHINNIYeah, well, the economy has just -- it's pounded everybody, but the issues I would point out are different. That's really telling.
CHINNIIt's not a foreclosure problem. That's -- we talk about the economy and the economy is the issue, but what is the economic issue? It depends. You go out to Eagle, Co., you go out to those boomtowns, it's -- what's it about. It's about people losing their homes to foreclosure. You go to a place like Baton Rouge -- and obviously the budget cuts are a problem in Eagle, too -- but it's unemployment. It's crime. I mean crime is not a problem in Eagle. But that's the -- you know, the crime in Baton Rouge, I think, is directly related to the economic situation in the area.
ROBERTSAnd it's also -- it seeps into the sense of well-being.
ROBERTSYou know, that if you are anxious about crime, it erodes your sense of, not only security, but of safety and well-being.
CHINNIYeah, and how you feel about your place, how you feel about where you live, how you feel about your life, absolutely.
ROBERTSAnd about the future.
ROBERTSDante Chinni's book is called "Our Patchwork Nation." We'll come back with your e-mails, your calls and a visit to another one of his places, Sioux Center, Iowa. So you stay with us. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Dante Chinni, longtime journalist, political reporter who has written a book called "Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the Real America." And Dante and his coauthor, James Gimpel, have broken America down into 12 community types that make up our nation and we've been talking about that and we have some e-mails, Dante. And here's one that says, "Please speak to the consumer and pop culture homogenization. Are there counties that resist that?" I mean, you were talking about all the differences and yet anywhere in your 12 groups, there's a McDonald's. Everywhere...
CHINNI(laugh) Yeah, Right, Right.
ROBERTS...there's a Walmart.
ROBERTSSo talk about this point.
CHINNIIt's actually -- that's a really good point. The -- Walmart really is everywhere. It's really surprising. Almost every community I go to -- I go to these 12 places, every one of them except one, I think, has a Walmart in it. But when you really crunch the numbers across these types, the breakdowns are there are more Walmarts in some places -- Evangelical Epicenters have the most Walmarts by far, way more than you would expect. And then you would see in other places, including the Monied Burbs, and there are more Starbucks in the Monied 'Burbs way more than there are in the Evangelical Epicenters or other places.
CHINNIYou know, so there has been -- there's definitely some homogenization. One thing I would say is if you live in a big city and you travel between big cities and their suburbs, America does look the same. You know, I can fly from here to suburban St. Louis or I can fly from suburban Washington to St. Louis and say, oh, look, there's a Starbucks like there's a Pottery Barn and this is -- I know this part of America.
CHINNIBut I'll tell you, when you really get out there and you drive for a couple hours, drive for two or three hours when you leave a place, yeah, you might seen an Applebee's, you know, or a Chili's or something like that, but it's really -- it's -- the climate is just different. You won't find a Starbucks in some of those places or the Walmart. In a tiny town, there's gigantic Walmart and it's just -- it is -- it's more different than you think it is. In fact, I would tell you, those consumer groups, those companies that are selling things, they've done this niching a long time ago. They're way ahead of journalism in terms of putting things where they sell.
ROBERTSTheir market surveys, yeah.
ROBERTSInteresting. Keith from Silver Spring writes to us, says, "As a long -- a lifelong Marylander and combat vet, I'm very tired of the Midwest treated as, quote, 'the real America.' We on the East Coast are real thinking Americans as real as anyone else."
CHINNIYes, I agree. I'm from the Midwest, too. And, you know, it's real, but the important thing is -- even talking about the East Coast, there are different parts of the East Coast. There are different parts of Maryland and the point of the book is there are counties in Maryland that have a lot in common with rural...
CHINNI...up at Deep Creek Lake, may have a lot more in common with rural parts of Michigan.
ROBERTSOr on Eastern Shore, Md.
ROBERTSYeah, absolutely, more in common with, like, the west side of Michigan or the Oregon Coast than they do with Baltimore or Montgomery County.
ROBERTSIt's a good way to think about this. Here's another one and this is -- it talks about leads into our next area, Tractor Country, and our listener writes, "While doing your research, were you surprised to find that your preconceptions of people in certain parts of the country were wrong? I asked this question because as an Iowa native, I'm often amused by the preconception that Iowans are ignorant hicks. And actual fact statistics show Iowa has the highest literacy rate in the country, which we discover every four years during the Iowa primary.
ROBERTSAnd as every presidential hopeful learns, Iowans take their politics seriously. We're not pushovers." So one of your demographics is Tractor Country. We're about to go to Sioux Center, Iowa. Talk about Sioux Center and your response to this e-mail.
CHINNIWell, first of all, I hope I didn't think -- I did not go to Iowa expecting them to be dumb hicks, I would say first of all. But the e-mailer couldn't be more right, you know, in fact, we're gonna talk to John Hansen on Sioux Center, Iowa. Sioux Center, Iowa, their library burn down. They had an old library. It was an act of arson. Library burned down. So what did they do? They built an incredibly beautiful prairie Frank Lloyd Wright-style library, for this very small community just because that's what they value there. And they did that of their -- they went around and passed the hat. They were raising money and they had some help from a local college in the city. They combined funding.
CHINNIThose communities, Tractor Country communities, don't think that it's a bunch of people walking around with pieces of wheat sticking out of the mouths and like talking about, you know, I wonder what Earl's gonna do. It's not like that. Those places, they have their own unique identities and, yes, they care a lot about agriculture because it's what the makes the place go. But, hey, don't think those are -- the person who e-mailed couldn’t be more right. Those are not dumb people. All these places, it's very important in this book -- look, get past the stereotypes you have about different parts of America. It's the only way we're gonna get stuff done. You've got to understand different cultures, different values, but they're not stupid, just different ideas.
ROBERTSJohn Hansen is the grain manager at the Sioux Center Iowa Farmers Cooperative Society and he's on the phone with us this morning. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show," John.
MR. JOHN HANSENGood morning. Thank you.
ROBERTSNow, one of the things that Dante was talking about was, yes, agriculture, very important. You're the wheat -- the grain manager, but one of the things most people on the Coast don't understand is how international a business agriculture is in a place like Iowa and that in some ways people in Iowa are far more internationalist and connected to the world economy than people realize.
HANSENThat is correct. I mean, with the internet and computers and our grain that travels from here to China or Russia or Europe, people are very attuned to what's going on in the world.
ROBERTSAnd I gather, one of the things that most defines Tractor Country -- in Dante's description, and it's certainly Sioux Center reflects -- is a sense of frugality and that the problems so many other places had of overspending, of taking out mortgages that people couldn't afford, of just living on credit cards, far less of a problem in Sioux Center.
HANSENCurrently, that is correct and that probably in the future it will be correct. The Midwest went through a farming crisis in the mid-'80s. I mean, people learned from that and now they're much more conservative on their financial side of the business, to make sure they have the money and the capital and the resources to pay for things they want or need before they borrow it.
ROBERTSAnd so your foreclosure rate, I gather, is much lower than in most parts of the country and your unemployment rate is lower?
HANSENOh, very low. You know, it'd be hard time -- hard pressed to find a foreclosure rate, not only on a farm, but in the community itself or housing. Housing -- we've got a new development just south of the town here and people sell their house and then they build one before they buy the new one.
ROBERTSAnd I gather -- Dante and I were talking about this earlier, that some of this has to do with the nature of banking and local banks, that if -- that part of what happened in these more anonymous suburbs is that banks lent money on very high risks and they didn't really care about who they were lending it to. They didn't have any connection to their customers. They resold those loans quickly and washed their hands off it, but in Sioux Center, the banks know their customers and that seems to provide an element of stability that's missing in a lot of other places.
HANSENOh, that is correct. I mean, the local banks, I think, the one bank in town here is probably the largest loan bank for agricultural loans in the state of Iowa. And you can walk it up and down the street, the banker knows everybody. He knows how they're doing, he knows what the economy is, where the green places is, where livestock places are, so he has a good sense of how people are doing financially, so he can make a better decision.
ROBERTSI'll ask you one other thing. Often we hear people objecting to government. I know, for instance, there's a lot of unhappiness in your area about some EPA regulations on dust from combines, issues like that, but it's also true, is it not, that big agriculture, including your grain farmers, are heavily connected to the federal government and agricultural price supports. Is that fair or not?
HANSENYou know, they are connected not to the sense -- today, not because grain prices are fairly high because of the bailout, but when prices get low, the government has set up a safety net to allow the farmers to continue to prosper. So yes, we are tight, but as it goes in a cycle, as prices get cheap and farmers struggle...
ROBERTSThat's John Hansen, he is the grain manager...
HANSEN...(unintelligible) per subsidies go up.
ROBERTSJohn Hansen, thank you so much. He's the grain manager to Sioux Center Iowa Farmers Cooperative Society. We appreciate your being on "The Diane Rehm Show" this morning. And...
ROBERTSThank you, John. Dante, is there sometimes some hypocrisy here? Get government off my back and out of my pocket except when it comes to grain price support?
CHINNIYeah, though, I -- you know, I would argue that that's not unique to Tractor Country (laugh). I think that there is a -- the -- and I think this is a really interesting point just for everybody keep in mind and that's why this -- I really do think this stuff in this -- in the book, when we talk about these 12 communities, well, we tend to throw stones at each other, we really do. And to understand what motivates the attitudes in these places and to understand that there's some of it new, too. I mean, you know -- look, the boomtowns, I'm sure, would be more than -- people on the boomtowns would be more than happy to talk about how unfair it is that agricultural, you know, the agricultural subsidies are (unintelligible) he safety net. But at the same time, they would very much like some help handling the foreclosure problem in the country.
ROBERTSOr as we heard from Southern University and Ed Pratt talking about aid to universities, so everybody has their area in which they want government help.
CHINNIYeah, and the hard thing for the country -- look, I really do think that there's a big economic construction going on. It's -- we're finally completely out of the postwar boom and the little booms that kept us going for awhile. We have to kind of remake ourselves. And when we do that, we have to reimagine what government's gonna do and think -- when you think about that and, you know, everybody who lives in all these different types of communities, you're gonna have different things that you want. Getting through this next decade, as we do in all this, is just gonna be incredibly difficult. And I think it's even more difficult when you don't understand where those impulses are coming from these different places.
ROBERTSYeah, right. Well, I wanna -- we don't have a lot of time and I apologize to our listeners because we had these call-ins from various communities, but I wanna get through a few of our other callers and let's start with Chuck in Louisville, Ky. Thanks for your patience. Chuck, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CHUCKHi, folks. I just had -- actually three brief -- very brief points for ya. I found a great article on a local website called blackwednesday.org. It talks about human segregation, how we eventually kind of choose to segregate ourself. Well, the essence of the article is, is that especially Americans, we run into some kind of social strife, whether it be social, racial, political, whatever, band together, defeat that and then go ahead and resegregate back into our little communities. Like you've got every city in America seems to have a white part of town or a black part of town or black churches. You're starting to feel a lot of that in Latino communities, too.
CHUCKSo the big point of the article that makes sense to me is that division is kind of a human trait whether it's, you know, any of those things or not. How do we get something like that out of our collective DNA? Another -- part two of that is that in Kentucky, we recently had a Senate debate where supporters of Rand Paul, basically, stomped on a female supporter like with feet, actually stomped on her. Decency seems like it's out of window in America. My third point and possibly the most important is that Captain Kirk is from Iowa, so people need to back off (laugh).
ROBERTSThanks, Chuck. We appreciate it. Talk about this point of people seeking out like persons and it's not just, of course, on racial lines, although that's, in some ways, the most visible.
ROBERTSBut, you know, there are Korea Towns in...
CHINNIYeah, absolutely. Right.
ROBERTS...in many communities. There are little Italys, right?
CHINNIRight. Well, and there are, I mean, you know, you could break down Washington, D.C. into groups of people that have...
ROBERTSMount Pleasant is full of Salvadorians.
CHINNIAbsolutely, yeah. And, you know, and upper Northwest Washington is definitely home to a lot of media people like us. The self-segregation is there, but -- and I think it is just part of who -- it is in our DNA, but the other thing to point out is just like even when you don't self-segregate, when you live in these communities and you deal with these cultures and you deal with different economic issues and different political issues, even without the self-segregation, the differences in the way we live are just -- they're just -- they're built into the way the country works. And it's getting -- even if we don't self-segregate, the communities are making choices that are leading them at different directions and it's something we really have to come to terms with.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's turn to Sharon in Arlington, Texas. Welcome, Sharon. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SHARONYeah, I didn't hear the total -- in the beginning of the conversation with Dante on this book "The 12 Communities," but it is striking just how he, you know, moves the country. But my question was this -- or more of a comment kind of question at the same time. I was listening to the portion you're talking about a community in California and the Starbucks closed and the houses were foreclosed on, but it's almost like we...
ROBERTSRight. That was actually in -- actually was in Colorado, but go ahead, Sharon.
SHARONIn -- okay. I wasn't sure, but it's almost like we get a feel that we find people that blame the government for their ills...
SHARON…in the sense of how they fail to -- I don't wanna say -- control their finances. You see where people -- they have a certain income and the home and, you know, the financers will say, oh, you can afford a half-million dollar house, and so they go buy the house, but yet they have no monies to support the house, you know what I'm saying?
SHARONIt's -- you know, for the other activities that wanna be involved in, be it going to the fancy restaurants or what...
SHARON...but how do we get people to understand that it's up to you and not the government to figure out how do you afford the things you want to afford and live within your means, but to all of a sudden fault the government because you haven't done what you needed to do. I just -- it's hard for me to get past that and I don't know if I'm looking at it wrong or what, but...
ROBERTSThank you very much, Sharon. That's an interesting point. Dante?
CHINNIWell, there are sharp differences. One thing we actually did with the help of some folks at the Sunlight Foundation is we mapped TARP money by bank branch all around the country to see where the biggest TARP...
ROBERTSSunlight is a great foundation here that devoted to transparency in government.
CHINNIThey do terrific work. And we got data from them that allowed us to look county by county, the bank branches that took TARP money. And that the breakdown is astounding. It is. People in boomtowns did state they took out a lot of loans. That's where a lot of TARP money went because that's where a lot of collapses where, so the caller's right, in some ways, about that. That -- what's happened in a larger sense economically is, I think, real wages in this country really haven't risen for a long time.
CHINNISo what we've been trying to do is we've -- people in some community types might grant you -- and it's not everybody who lives there, but a lot of people in different types of place, there's much more of a keeping up with the Joneses-type of attitude and the way you kept up with the Joneses, really over the past decade, maybe the last two decades, is through credit. And that's really come crashing down. And do we have to learn as a people, particularly people in different types, some places in America who worry about keeping up with the Joneses? Do we have to get pass that? Absolutely. But that's -- that is a cultural change that's going to take. That's what I mean. Ten years, we're in for a really bumpy 10 years or so of certain stuff.
ROBERTSAlthough one of the things that's happened in this country is that we bemoan for so long with the low savings rate we have…
ROBERTS...compared to other countries like say, for instance, Japan….
ROBERTS...and it's almost become a problem now because people are spending -- are not spending…
ROBERTS...because they are saving in big -- whether it's corporations or individuals and had -- and so we've almost reversed this problem of profligacy into being almost overly conservative.
CHINNIPrecisely. And well, that's the real challenge for the government right now. What do you tell people? What do you tell people? Because people do need to save more. They do. When two-thirds of your economy is based on consumer spending, you do need the spending, but you got to watch the spending.
ROBERTSAnd we have time for one other quick call. Betty in St. Louis. Welcome to "Diane Rehm Show," but it have to be quick.
BETTYMy grandfather bought a farm in Northern Iowa back in the early 1900s on a handshake with a banker.
ROBERTSAnd -- yeah.
BETTYSo they did know their communities.
ROBERTSAnd this is part of what we're talking about that has to be restored to the banking system, isn't it? Not necessarily handshakes...
ROBERTS...but a sense of a responsibility and connection...
ROBERTS...between the banker and the borrower.
CHINNII know you...
CHINNI...you know me. It's actually really interesting, just really quickly. There's was this furniture store in Main Street in Sioux Center, Iowa. And the store had been there for 80 years. And I talked to the owner one day, so I'd really like to expand. I was like when are you gonna expand? And he said, well, when I've got money saved up to do it because I'm not gonna take out a loan to expand. The store -- it's not going anywhere. That store is not going anywhere, but his -- in his DNA is when I have the money, I'll expand. It's just a very different idea of how the economy works.
CHINNIBetty, thanks for your call. We appreciate that anecdote. Thanks for calling us on "The Diane Rehm Show." And Dante Chinni, thank you for being here. His new book is "Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the Real America, The 12 Community Types that Make Up Our Nation. Ray Suarez, a familiar voice on public radio has written the introduction and you've worked with James Gimpel, a demographer who's been a big help to you.
CHINNITerrific work, Jim. I could not have done this without Jim. Jim makes the numbers crunch and makes it all sing and then I do the reporting.
ROBERTSSo Dante Chinni, thanks so much for being with us on "The Diane Rehm Show." And thank you to our listeners as always for sharing an hour of your morning with you -- with us. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane and appreciate your taking the time to listen to Dante and me this morning.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.
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