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Sin in the city

An attempt to rank America’s most vice-ridden places provides a flawed but insightful snapshot of modern-day morality

Sin in the city

(Krieg Barrie)

Fifth in a series on cities

An audacious article on the website has theological and statistical problems, but it could be a good dinner discussion starter. The article by Adam McCann, headlined as 2019’s “Most Sinful Cities in America,” compared how more than 180 U.S. cities ranked according to one reading of the medieval list of seven deadly sins, including lust, greed, and vanity.

Las Vegas lived up to its reputation, winning first place overall—but specific sins like lust, greed, and vanity characterized other urban centers. For example, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, and New Orleans purportedly outdo other American cities when it comes to gluttony and drunkenness.

New Orleans prides itself on its bacchanals, but the other cities don’t have reputations for wild parties. To compile its list, WalletHub looked for signs that a city’s people abused food, alcohol, and drugs. How much of the population is obese? How many drunk drivers killed people? How many prescriptions for opioids do doctors write?

According to the list, Californians are the most virtuous Americans for avoiding epicurean excess, but any U.S. city with a high cost of living fares well by WalletHub’s standards. Affluent cities tend to have lower unemployment and better-educated populations. Advantages like these correlate with healthier lifestyles. The more Whole Foods Markets in a city, the further down the list it’s likely to be.

Perhaps affluent communities trade one form of excess for another. Poorer communities consume too many calories through fast food and alcohol, but wealthier communities spend excessive amounts of money on organic food and health supplements. High incomes and overpriced real estate don’t make people virtuous. We just become choosier about our vices. New York City and San Francisco tried to cut soda consumption, but they lead the nation in smoking marijuana. After all, marijuana doesn’t have any calories.

WALLETHUB HAS MINNESOTA TIED WITH MISSISSIPPI for highest percentage of adults with a gambling disorder. That seems strange, given that U.S. News and World Report in 2018 ranked Minnesota as the second-best place to live in the United States, topped only by Iowa. 

Turns out the Land of 10,000 Lakes has 22,000 casino slot machines and gaming tables. The state ranks ninth in number of casinos per capita. All 22 are tribally owned, so no revenue goes to the state. But the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association says Minnesota coffers still benefit because casinos employ 13,000 people, attract 23 million visitors, and channel money to local vendors.

The Minnesota Lottery, a $3 billion business, reports lottery ticket sales keep increasing, generating almost $600 million in revenue for the state last year. Between casinos and the lottery, Minnesotans are gambling more than ever.

The state’s 2017 Report on Gambling says almost 4.5 percent of Minnesota’s adult population are problem gamblers. Ironically, the report notes the state uses gambling proceeds to fund programs for combating gambling disorders.

Some churches provide space for weekly meetings of Gamblers Anonymous or Gam-Anon (for the loved ones of problem gamblers). Other churches with Biblical counseling ministries, like Bethlehem Baptist, tackle the problems one-on-one. Though churches may differ on interpretation of how the Bible addresses gambling, all agree that God admonishes us to work hard, put others first, and be self-controlled.

Las Vegas and two of its suburbs—North Las Vegas and Henderson—rank third, first, and ninth on the laziness list, respectively. America’s so-called “laziest” cities tend to be those where gambling is legal, even though the WalletHub laziness score metric has no direct connection with gambling. It instead includes categories like weekly hours worked, TV time, lack of exercise, and high-school dropout rates.

What explains the correlation? Gamblers Anonymous suggests that the compulsive gambler swings between emotional highs and lows that detract from the normal rhythms of life. This results in both lost time and lost productivity. A first-time Gamblers Anonymous attendee has to answer pointed questions: “Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling? Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?”

Laziness and lust also seem to cohabit. WalletHub based its lust rankings on levels of adult entertainment businesses per capita, Google searches for “XXX entertainment,” Tinder users, and the teen birth rate. (That benefits cities with high abortion rates, hardly a measurement of virtue.) It’s good that God keeps most people busy working, or else sin would expand. 

About half of America’s “laziest” cities are in the Southern states or Appalachia, where a federal American Time Use Survey reports TV-watching is high—three or more hours a day. Not all of the so-called lazy cities score poorly on a Labor Department metric for average weekly hours worked. Detroit and Mobile ranked seventh and eighth on the laziness list, yet both top the national average of 34.5 hours worked per week—which suggests that, at least judging by WalletHub’s metrics, residents there are lazy only off-the-job.

WALLETHUB CALLED FORT LAUDERDALE the most jealous city in America, judging by per capita thefts, identity-theft complaints, and fraud complaints.

South Florida sits high on the list for many kinds of theft, including shoplifting, auto theft, and boat theft. In 2017 southern Florida airports suffered a rash of airbag thefts from cars parked there. Miami police divers often fish “stolen” cars out of Miami’s many canals: Car owners dump them to collect insurance money.

Florida also leads the nation in fraud and identity theft complaints. The state’s many elderly are particularly vulnerable. noted Florida’s 1.5 percent identity theft rate is twice that of runner-up Maryland. The FBI’s website says con artists know “senior citizens are most likely to have a nest egg, to own their home, and to have excellent credit.” The Florida attorney general’s office says old people often don’t report fraud because they are embarrassed or fear retaliation. Fraudsters based in South Florida target not only local seniors but others throughout the country.

Though the U.S. Census lumps Tampa and St. Petersburg into one metropolitan statistical area, in WalletHub’s survey Tampa is more sinful than its saintly neighbor: Tampa ranked 16th, compared with 72nd for St. Petersburg. WalletHub identified lust and vanity as Tampa’s big sins. Tampa is probably higher in those categories because its median age of 35.5 is nearly seven years below St. Pete’s. St. Petersburg, though, outranks Tampa in “laziness”: That likely reflects its higher population of nonworking retirees and seasonal “snowbirds”—captured in the city’s nickname, “God’s Waiting Room.”

WalletHub ranked some cities higher than others on anger and hate, measured by factors such as the level of violent crime or the prevalence of hate crimes. St. Louis garnered a #1 ranking for anger and hate in the WalletHub study. What to do? St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden says the Bible is central to restoring civility and reducing crime. Hayden last year told St. Louis Magazine the first thing that occurred to him when appointed chief was, “The Lord has put you here, but to whom much is given, much is required.”

—with research by WJI mid-career students Collin Garbarino, Sharon Dierberger, Daniel Van Oudenaren, Andrew Patrick Coleman, Laura Singleton, Victoria Johnson, Carol Blair, Steve West, and Joel Maas

A spiritual reorientation

by Jenny Rough

Growing up in Ohio, I went to church every week. I attended Sunday school, youth group, prayer meetings, and Bible studies. Yet I completely missed God’s message. The year I turned 37, God opened my eyes to His gift of new life. Why then? Why not years earlier?

I blame WalletHub—or at least, articles like the “Most Sinful Cities in America.” They conditioned me to view sin as little acts of wrongdoing, like the time I kept my allowance to buy gum instead of placing my quarters in the offering plate or, years later, when I bought a lottery ticket at 7-Eleven. (WalletHub says the greediest cities are those with residents who don’t give enough to charity and have a lot of casinos or people with gambling disorders.) I believed I had to rigidly follow certain rules to earn salvation.

Romans teaches that sin is a condition under which all human lives exist. Sin isn’t measurable. It can’t be categorized by using a balance sheet to track charitable giving versus personal expenses. Avoiding certain behaviors won’t fix my sin condition. Only God can do that.

Here’s what I’ve learned about greed: Greed is my inclination to say to God, “You don’t get to tell me how to use my money, possessions, work, body, or time. It’s mine!” You know what the problem with greed is? Just when I think I’ve smashed the little sucker, I see it crawling all over my soul.

—Jenny Rough was the 10th student in January’s WJI mid-career course

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Marvin Olasky

World Journalism Institute students