Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, we asked you to take the bubble quiz, based on Charles Murray’s 2012 book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” meant to test how well you knew the average white American. Today, Charles Murray continues his exploration of the scores and ZIP codes from the bubble quiz in a second post. You can find his first post analyzing the results here.
If you want your child to grow up clueless about mainstream white America, what are the ZIP codes that have the best track record?
To answer that question, I used the 50,464 cases in which the respondents provided both a score on the bubble quiz and the ZIP code where they lived at age 10. (These were data available as of Wednesday morning when I started this exercise.) I asked my statistical software to calculate the median bubble score for every ZIP code represented in those 50,464 cases. Since I couldn’t make any judgments about ZIP codes that were represented by just a few people, I chose 10 as the lower limit of scores that I would examine more closely. There’s still a lot of room for oddball results with a sample size of 10, but this procedure gave me a useful starting point for examining patterns.
And the winner is … ZIP code 10023. The median bubble score of the 16 people who had lived in 10023 at the age of 10 was 12.5. To give you an idea how low 12.5 is, a score of 12 puts one at the 3rd percentile of the entire sample. And a refresher — this quiz is out of 100. The higher your score, the thinner your bubble. The lower, the more insulated you might be from mainstream American culture. So, yes, 12.5 is a low score.
The location of this ZIP code is so stereotypically appropriate that many of you would have guessed correctly within a few miles. ZIP code 10023 is on New York’s Upper West Side, bordering Central Park from 59th to 76th, with a socioeconomic status percentile of 99.6. It’s in the heart of that chunk of Manhattan where New Yorkers are most certain that they live at the center of the universe and where the local culture is, to put it gently, somewhat different from the one in which most Americans live.
To give you a broader idea of which ZIP codes as children were associated with the lowest bubble scores as adults, I assembled data on the 75 ZIP codes that had samples of at least 10 and and median bubble scores of less than 25. Only 17 percent of the 50,464 had scores that low. In more technical terms, I identified ZIP codes with median scores at least one standard deviation below the mean for the entire sample.
Before showing you the 75 ZIP codes, I need to say a few words about the unrepresentativeness of the sample of people who visited the PBS NewsHour website and took the bubble test. They skew far above the national average on education and income. Specifically, the average socioeconomic status percentile of the current ZIP codes for people who took the bubble quiz was 78. Almost a quarter of the sample lived in ZIP codes at the 92nd percentile or higher. This skew makes it impossible to use the sample as nationally representative. But it does not hamper our ability to make statements about which ZIP codes are most strongly associated with low bubble scores, because, in effect, the skew has produced an oversampling of the people who are demographically most likely to have low scores.
The table shows the 75 ZIP codes, where they are and both their median bubble score and the socioeconomic status (SES) percentile of the ZIP code.
In all, the table represents the scores of 1,247 people. A remarkable 31 percent of them came from just one metropolitan statistical area: New York City and its surrounding towns and cities. Twenty percent came from San Francisco, its suburbs to the north and east and the corridor extending down to San Jose. The Washington area contributed 11 percent, Los Angeles contributed 9 percent and Boston’s suburbs contributed 8 percent. In all, 79 percent came from these five areas, which contain just 15 percent of the nation’s population.
Four of the five are also the power centers of contemporary America. If you think in terms of “people who run the country,” whether you’re talking about politics, the economy or culture, an overwhelming majority live in the areas in and around Washington, New York, San Francisco/Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. In “Coming Apart,” I discussed this point at length with reference to the socioeconomic status percentiles of the ZIP codes in the elite neighborhoods of the “Big Four.” What I could not know then is how strongly the scores on the bubble quiz would track with those same neighborhoods.
These specific 75 ZIP codes are not particularly important in themselves. They are significant, because they tend to be part of clusters of ZIP codes with similar characteristics. For example, only six out of the 33 Manhattan residential ZIP codes south of 96th street were part of the top 75. But the combined median bubble score for all the people who lived in those 33 ZIP codes at age 10 was 26 — almost a standard deviation below the mean for the entire sample of 50,464.
Something else to notice is how many large urban regions did not have more than one or two ZIP codes that were part of the 75. Chicago has the third largest population of any metropolitan statistical area in the country, but had only one ZIP code among the 75, and Dallas-Forth Worth, ranked fourth, had just one. Philadelphia, ranked fifth, had two. Houston, ranked sixth, had one. Miami-Fort Lauderdale, ranked seventh, had one. Atlanta, ranked eighth, had none. This, too, tracks with the story for the socioeconomic status percentiles — every large city has some high socioeconomic status ZIP codes, but only a handful of cities are characterized by large clusters of contiguous high-socioeconomic status ZIP codes.
Enough for today. Next, I think I’ll create an index that combines both the ZIP code at age 10 and the current ZIP code and see what comes of that. Or maybe I’ll get sidetracked by something else. Stay tuned.