OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Population perspective

Theoretically, everybody in Arkansas could pack themselves into the borders of a single county. All 3 million of us could be herded, say, into western Lawrence County, which is bisected by the Black River.

Think of everyone you know–all your Facebook friends, all your relatives and distant cousins, plus the rest of the people from the 74 other counties–taking up residence in one-half of my home county.

What Arkansas would be like then, from a population density perspective, is Chicago.

Numerically, the Windy City has about the same population as the Natural State yet only occupies 227 square miles, compared to the more than 53,000 within our borders.

But statistically, our 3 million people are different in various ways from our Chicagoan counterparts, as captured and detailed in Census Bureau data.

The percentage of persons divided by age group is similar for younger Arkansans and Chicagoans: 6.0 and 6.1 percent, respectively, under age 5; 23.2 and 20.5 percent under age 18. Above age 65, it diverges to 17.5 percent for Arkansas and only 12.7 for Chicago.

Racially, Arkansas’ breakdown is less diverse than Chicago’s: 78 percent white, 16 percent Black and 8 percent Hispanic. For Chicago, it’s 48, 29 and 28.

Educationally, 87.2 percent of Arkansans have attained a high school diploma or higher, compared to 85.9 percent of Chicagoans; but 41 percent of them have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while only 23.8 percent of us do.

The Internet gap isn’t as big as you might imagine: 77 percent of Arkansas households have a broadband subscription, while 82.6 percent of Chicago households do. And households with computers are about the same (88 and 90.4 percent, respectively).

Family and living arrangement statistics between Arkansas and Chicago are almost identical for households, persons per household and percentage living in the same house one year ago. But 35.5 percent of Chicago residents over 5 years old speak a language other than English at home, while only 7.6 percent of Arkansas residents do.

Chicago leads handsomely in household and per capita income, not surprisingly–but although Arkansas is often considered a high poverty state, the poverty rate in Chicago is higher.

People are people, but how and where they live affects lifestyles and behaviors. Arkansas and Chicago invest comparable amounts for education ($6 billion apiece), but our student population statewide is 460,000 and Chicago’s city school system is shrinking annually–it’s down more than 73,000 students from a decade ago to only 330,000, and its enrollment is nearly 90 percent minority. Chicago’s graduation rate of 82 percent is also well below Arkansas’ 89 percent.

In Arkansas, 2020 was a bad year for crime. Our 321 murders that year were the most in the state’s entire history, but they were spread out across our expansive geography. Even our smallest counties by land area are more than twice Chicago’s square mileage, and nearly one-third of our counties (24) did not experience a murder at all.

But Chicago was home to 726 murders that year, all occurring within a roughly 8-by-28-mile rectangle within a single county.

Most Arkansas residents likely have trouble imagining being crammed into an existence where the average people per square mile is more than the population of 20 of our individual counties. Likewise, living in Arkansas where encountering the great outdoors is the rule rather than the exception might seem perplexing to Chicago residents.

But nature and natural habitats are not merely matters of preference; they positively affect human well-being. An entire cottage industry has sprung up around improving social inequalities regarding access to green spaces, supported by evidence of benefits–and detriments if deficient–for youth development and elderly healthiness.

Indeed, Chicago ranks high as a “garden city” among urban peers, with almost all residents within a 10-minute walk of a park. But a multitude of Arkansans look just beyond their windows on green, park-like conditions. And Chicago’s 600 parks pale against the Natural State’s countless countryside amenities, from myriad city and state parks to pristine lakes and forests we take for granted.

Conversely, Chicagoans en masse must now take for granted certain realities, conditions and urban pathologies that are more traceable to 18th century European metropolises than the American colonies.

London at the time of the Constitutional Convention crowded almost a million souls into just a few square miles. Paris packed more than half a million French into 13 square miles. Those piled-on population densities created wretched living conditions among the working class, and a cycle of hopeless social castes and stagnation–oppressed by an atrociously ostentatious ruling coterie of royalty–that early emigrants to America sought to escape.

Independence and self-government were not just rebellious ideas against mother country politics and taxes. They were a repudiation of centuries of unjust sprawl and squalor and of toxic dependence on autocratic powers-that-be. Created equality of opportunity is the heart of American exceptionalism, and we underestimate how exceedingly exceptional that thinking really was.

Solving our densely congested cities’ slide back towards that historic sense of urban malaise is a major 21st century challenge.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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