Montana Voices: Painted by the numbers

The land of my past, the South Texas coast, is inundated by high water. The land of my future, where my daughter and grandson live near Missoula, is choked by smoke. Maybe I’d better focus on what’s right here, right now.

David Crisp

Fortunately, the internet world is taking the local temperature just about every day. Here at Last Best News, click-seeking websites inundate and choke us constantly with numbers seeking to define who and what Montanans are.

Some of these numbers come from government sources, but many come from WalletHub, a website that seems mostly devoted to providing credit reporting and monitoring. WalletHub’s marketing strategy apparently relies on constantly sending out results of polls and surveys to news media, hoping callow journalists won’t be able to resist.

They got me. I look at every one of the polls that mentions Montana, even if I rarely write about them. But look at all of the things I have learned:

♦ Billings ranks 31st out of the 383 best places for U.S. women entrepreneurs.

♦ Montana ranks 10th worst among the states in terms of bullying problems.

♦ In 2016, Billings was the nation’s seventh best-run city.

♦ That same year, Montana was the seventh-most patriotic state.

♦ Teen drivers in Montana are the fourth-worst in the nation.

♦ Montana has the fourth-highest rate of gambling addiction.

♦ Montana is the second-least green state in 2017.

♦ Montana has the 10th-lowest tax burden among the states in 2017. We have the nation’s third-lowest overall state and local effective tax rates. And Montana has the sixth-best business tax climate.

♦ Montana is 2017’s 10th-most financially literate state.

♦ Montana ranks third among states most dependent state on the gun industry. We rank first in contributions promoting gun control per congressional member per capita and fifth in contributions supporting gun rights.

♦ Montana leads the nation in job growth, or so says Gov. Steve Bullock, citing numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

♦ Billings is the fifth-least culturally diverse midsize city. But Montana ranks fourth among the states with the “most integrated Hispanics.”

♦ Montana is the seventh-best state for doctors to work in. On the other hand, it is the state with the sixth-most overworked physicians.

♦ Montana ranks dead last among the states in the percentage of the workforce that was foreign born. Unsurprisingly, then, Montana is the state in which immigrants have the 10th-smallest economic impact. Montana also would be the fifth-least affected state by a trade war with Mexico.

♦ Montana has the third-worst dental health among the states. In one bizarre dental-health measure of all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Montana ranked 59th.

♦ Montana is the third-best state for military retirees.

♦ Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation.

♦ Montana is the seventh least-safe state. We rank second-worst in fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel and third-worst in fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 full-time workers.

♦ Montana is the 10th-worst state for summer road trips. This result was so odd that I was almost tempted to try to figure out the methodology. Math aside, I have made summer road trips to at least 40 states. No place tops Montana.

Now, I make no claims for the accuracy, or even the logical coherency, of any of the surveys cited here. If you are looking for the sort of rigorous reporting that typifies Last Best News, don’t look in this space, at least not today. These numbers provide a snapshot, or a collage of snapshots, not a definitive look at the state.

But whatever the oddities contained in these numbers, they do sort of sound like Montana. We like guns and don’t mind working too hard.

We lack diversity, but are so tolerant that bullies feel safe here. We work dangerous jobs, and we are hazards on the highway.

We don’t like taxes, and we know exactly how much we don’t like them. We expect government to run well on the money we give it, and we get what we expect.

As much as we like the outdoors, we are careless about the environment. Veterans like it here, and so do gamblers. We would rather salute the flag than brush our teeth.

That’s the beauty of living in a poll-driven society. When polls proliferate, no one has to try too hard or wait too long to find numbers that match our preconceptions. Somehow, no matter how many numbers we crunch, we wind up looking a lot like us.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.