Monday, December 10, 2012

The world is treating me bad, misery

Actually, living as I do in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the world is NOT treating me bad. It’s just not every day that I get to quote The Beatles. (Although if I put my mind to it, I probably could dredge something up on a near-daily basis.)

Now, if I lived in Mississippi, the world would, indeed, be treating me bad. Maybe not me personally, but me as a Mississippian. Which I have never been and hope never to be. So far, so good.

Even if I did really, really, really want to move to a state which proudly displayed the Confederate stars and bars on its flag. Even if Eudora Welty came back from the dead and invited me to live in her cool house in Jackson. Even if I had a powerful hankering for hushpuppies. Even if all these factors were in play, I could never, ever, ever live in a place that was sweltering hot and dripping humid six months out of the year. (Presumably, I’ll be dust in the wind by the time the weather in Massachusetts gets this bad.)

But if you happen to be a Mississippian by birth or desire, you probably already have a pretty good idea that, even if you’re comfortably ensconced in a Welty-esque home, which you never have to leave, there’s a shrimp-boat-full of misery in your state.

In fact, according to Bloomberg, Mississippi ranks Number 1 (or Number 50, depending on the way you look at it) on the Misery Index, with a ranking of 73.17 out of a possible 100.

Misery loves company, and Mississippi is surrounded by other states with heavy duty misery. Neighboring Louisiana is Number 2, neighboring Alabama is Number 3, and neighboring Arkansas is Number 5. South Carolina, which grabs the Number 4 spot, is not an abutter, but it’s not far afield.

These are, of course, poor states, so it’s no surprise they rank high in the items contained in the misery index: “air pollution, child poverty, infant mortality, poor health, premature death, violent crime, unemployment.”

Still, you can live pretty darned well in any of these places.

I’ve been to Charleston, S.C., which is almost Disney-esque in its pristine charm.

But, of course, most people don’t live in the old town section of Charleston.

On the other end of the misery continuum, Minnesota (at 20.12) is the least miserable of states. New Hampshire is right behind it, then North Dakota,  Vermont, and Massachusetts. Of the top 10 states, three were plains states, three were Midwest, and three were from New England.  Hawaii made it onto this list, which is no surprise, if you’ve ever stepped toe there. I’m sure it has its pockets of poverty, and I know they have to pay a lot for cars and appliances. Still, living in a place that’s perpetually and pleasantly balmy, plus has bougainvillea growing in abundance everywhere you look, has to put a smile on your face most days.

I know, I know.

Indices like this are pretty ridiculous. It’s not as if everyone in Mississippi drops out of high school and dies young. It’s not as if everyone in Minnesota has a PhD and lives to 100.

But even if you live in Mississippi, and have a PhD and an annuity table that forecasts a mega life span, it has to be pretty depressing (or enraging) to know that, on so many vectors, your state is doing just terribly. That everyone else in the country looks down at you. Even if you live in Louisiana, you can always tell yourself ‘at least I don’t live in Mississippi.’

Of course, there’s the opposite tendency in the low-misery states: we get to be smug and condescending because “we” have it better. At least the “we” who check the news on Bloomberg do.

In the early 1960’s, many Americans were shocked, or embarrassed, or galvanized into action, when they read The Other America by Michael Harrington and In the Midst of Plenty by Ben Bagdikian, which chronicled poverty in these United States.  Fifty years on, there’s still an other America ratcheting around in the midst of our plenty. (And, let’s face it, even in 2008, in the throes of the recession, we still had, in aggregate, plenty.) Maybe, relatively speaking, the Other America’s inhabitants are materially better off than they were back then. Maybe there are fewer people living in crude shot-gun shacks with wind whistling through the cracks in the wall. But is it an improvement to be living with your kids in a dumpy motel with no fridge, with your earthly possessions stuffed in garbage bags?

The poor they will always be with us. The miserable, too.

Hey, I’d rather live in a low-misery state than in a high-misery state. We do, on balance, have it better: richer, healthier, better educated… So I’m in a good place.

But a day doesn’t go by when I don’t pass someone panhandling, or sleeping on the streets.

Plenty of misery to go around, I’d say.

We don’t need an index to tell us that.

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