The Not-Quite-Law of the Canadian Border

“The Law of the Canadian Border” was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation that Northern states close to Canada have higher test scores and better outcomes in general compared to States further South. As Moynihan wrote in “Defining Deviancy Down”:

I published an article showing that the correlation between eighth-grade math scores and distance of state capitals from the Canadian border was .522, a respectable showing.

By contrast, the correlation with per pupil expenditure was a derisory .203. I offered the policy proposal that states wishing to improve their schools should move closer to Canada. This would be difficult, of course, but so would it be to change the parent-pupil ratio.

Indeed, the 1990 Census found that for the District of Columbia, apart from Ward 3 west of Rock Creek Park, the percentage of children living in single-parent families in the seven remaining wards ranged from a low of 63.6 percent to a high of 75.7. This being a one-time measurement, over time the proportions become asymptotic.

And this in the nation`s capital. No demand for change comes from that community–or as near to no demand as makes no matter.For there is good money to be made out of bad schools.

This is a statement that will no doubt please many a hard heart, and displease many genuinely concerned to bring about change. To the latter, a group in which I would like to include myself, I would only say that we are obliged to ask why things do not change.”[“Defining Deviancy Down”, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan,  American Scholar, (Winter 1993)] ]

Interestingly enough, even though this is often treated as being a result of the differences in racial composition of Northern and Southern states, with states with a larger African-American composition also having worse outcomes for whites, the Law of the Canadian Border doesn’t actually hold very well for African-Americans themselves. Despite what articles like this one from 538 last month (“Patterns of Mortality in Black Belt Still Show Outline of Slavery”) would have you think, it’s not clear the “Legacy of Slavery” casts a darker shadow over black outcomes in the states of the Old South any more than in the rest of the lower 48 (Alaska and Hawaii really do often have unusually good black outcomes, but probably for reasons unrelated to latitude.)

For example, Northern black-white test score gaps are large enough that blacks often score worse in Northern states than Southern states, despite Northern states scoring better overall:


In mortality terms, too, although Southern states have higher mortality, this is almost entirely a result of income, for blacks at least.


Once you control for income (or the log of income) you find that Northern states still have lower mortality for middle aged whites but not middle aged blacks.


I also shared last month a few examples of counties in the South with large black populations and much lower black mortality than the national white mean:


It’s probably not responsible for most of these patterns (my guess instead is that several Southern states like Georgia, Texas, and Virginia have black populations that contain many people whose families migrated North several decades ago and back down South more recently, and so are “twice selected” for characteristics correlated with lower mortality), but it is interesting to consider whether and when the amount of daily insolation and average climate directly have divergent effects on different populations. For example, Somalis in Minneapolis and Stockholm have extremely elevated levels of childhood autism, that don’t seem to appear among the same groups in Somalia. I assume this has at least something to do with the interaction of low light levels (and perhaps low vitamin D levels, given Somalis’ dark skin) in Minnesota and Sweden with fetal development.



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