Is Iowa Really One of America's Least Sinful States?

It depends on who's doing the measuring and how.

Posted Feb 18, 2021

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Iowa ranks 45th in sinfulness in the United States, according to recent research by the personal finance website Wallethub. The state appears to be the homeland of virtue itself. But the devil is in the details.   

Bills now being discussed in the Iowa legislature include those requiring transgender individuals to use the bathroom that relates to their birth status—and, apparently, to come prepared with a birth certificate. And legislation intended to amend the state constitution is focused on protecting the rights of gun owners and limiting reproductive rights. Some bills are aimed at increasing voter turnout among the base of those in power (the GOP) while others limit the voting options for those not in power (Democrats). So, some see Iowa as legislating against sins while others see the legislation itself as sinful.

Again, the details.

Wallethub used statistical analysis to determine where states rank in seven basic deadly sins: anger and hatred; jealousy; excesses and vices; greed; lust; vanity; and laziness. Each sin is given 14.3 points, for a total of 100.1. Statistics that support the existence of that vice, such as the number of murders (anger and hatred) or rapes (lust), are each given a numeral weight and these are added up to create an overall score.

Applying quantitative measures to qualitative characteristics gives us numbers that may or may not signify something. The meaning of the words is lost when they are reduced to numbers. What I see as greedy you may see as good business. My view of hatred may be your idea of self-preservation.

Numeric sin does not add up to sinfulness. We can measure a series of acts that appear to be sins, but they have their roots in the complicated mess of life and could signify a reaction to pain and poverty rather than sinfulness.

How can you adequately measure laziness, for example? One metric Wallethub uses is watching TV. Well, what if your job just dried up and nobody’s hiring because of the pandemic, or because you live in an area of rural Iowa that has no jobs? And you have no car and no money to buy or maintain one and it's below zero out? Or you're just an average Iowan stuck at home during a pandemic?

Jealousy is likewise difficult and is judged here by identity thefts and fraud, which more likely signify greed and laziness or, again, a lack of rural opportunity.

But some metrics hit it pretty right, such as the number of school kids who carry guns and the number of hostile online comments as measures of anger and hatred. Hate crimes, bullying, and domestic violence are also included, but those are only meaningful when reported and accurately recorded. We may have fewer rapes in Iowa, or we just may have fewer people reporting rapes, or fewer officials recording them.

Excesses and vices include smoking, opioid use, and drinking. Gambling comes under greed but might be countered by charitable contributions. Lust includes teen births and prostitution, which may track OK on the male side of the equation but certainly not on the female side. And where does sex trafficking on the I-80 corridor that runs through Iowa come in?

Vanity covers beauty shop use and amount spent on personal grooming, which seems petty. It also includes plastic surgery, which assumes that’s all for vanity and not to cure deformities or scars. Is a farmer who loses a finger fixing his tractor vain for wanting a plastic surgeon to sew it back on?

The Wages of Sin

If not all sins can be enumerated, at least their wages can be added up. According to Wallethub, gambling costs the United States about $5 billion per year. Smoking adds up to more than $300 billion annually.

Not surprisingly, because of gambling, Nevada is the country’s most sinful state. Wyoming is the least, for whatever reason. Right in the middle are Virginia (24), New Mexico (25), and Washington (26), which sound appealing—low on the goody-two-shoes scale but still respectable.  

This, of course, is a marketing ploy. Some states will use a low sinful score to emphasize being a great place to live; others will note that their sinfulness makes them a great place to visit.

Iowa's Rank

Iowa is 45th overall and, in terms of specific sins, it ranks:

  • 32nd—Anger and Hatred
  • 44th—Jealousy
  • 35th—Excesses and Vices
  • 35th—Greed
  • 39th—Lust
  • 30th—Vanity
  • 44th—Laziness

The state's biggest sin is vanity, and it ranks just below the middle there. Really? Lots of lipstick on pork? Or what? Are other states just vainer? Its smallest vices are jealousy and laziness, perhaps because Wallethub didn't measure the number of Google searches in February for "warmest beach locations in the winter."

A detailed definition of the sins and the weight given to each transgression are on the Wallethub site.