2020 Census shows increasing number of Black residents in the suburbs

A trend continues in the 2020 Census data: Blacks continue to move from big cities to the suburbs.

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The two enclaves of roughly 30,000 people reflect how Black migration patterns in the 21st century are changing the makeup of metropolitan areas nationwide. For decades, Black residents have been leaving some of the nation’s largest cities while suburbs have seen an increase in their Black populations. Those two trends have now spread to even more areas of the country, according to the 2020 U.S. census.

The patterns echo the “white flight” that upended urban landscapes in the 20th century. Like those who left cities before them, Black residents often move because of worries about crime and a desire for reputable schools, affordable housing and amenities. But there are key differences: Leaving Black city neighborhoods that are starved for investment is often more of a necessity than a choice, and those who do settle into new suburban lives often find racial inequities there, too.

From 1990 to 2000, 13 of the United States’ biggest cities lost Black residents. By 2020, it was 23. According to the census, roughly 54% of Black residents within the 100 biggest American metro areas were suburbanites in 2020, up from 43% two decades ago, according to Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution.

While New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia all lost Black residents from 2010 to 2020, the change was especially notable in Chicago, which gained population but lost 85,000 Black people, the highest number after Detroit, according to the 2020 census. Those numbers could vary slightly, as the Census Bureau reported last week that 3.3% of the Black population was undercounted in the 2020 census, a rate higher than in 2010.

To summarize from the data presented above: among Black residents in the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, the majority now live in the suburbs.

This trend is several decades in the making. Traditionally, a move to the suburbs in the United States is interpreted as finding success in the land of single-family homes and middle-class and above life. Yet, not all suburban lives or communities are created equal. From the banning of Black and other minority residents from suburbs in the past to more informal methods today to exclude residents, residential patterns are uneven in the suburbs.

This also adds to the ongoing complexity of the suburbs where populations and communities are changing. The suburbs are not static even as they might as a whole adhere to similar ideals and ways of life.

Estimating the undercounts and overcounts of the 2020 Census

The decennial census is a big undertaking. And the work continues: the Census Bureau just released their estimates of how well the 2020 counts reflect the population of the United States.

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“Today’s results show statistical evidence that the quality of the 2020 Census total population count is consistent with that of recent censuses. This is notable, given the unprecedented challenges of 2020,” said Director Robert L. Santos. “But the results also include some limitations — the 2020 Census undercounted many of the same population groups we have historically undercounted, and it overcounted others.”

The two analyses are from the Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) and Demographic Analysis Estimates (DA) and estimate how well the 2020 Census counted everyone in the nation and in certain demographic groups. They estimate the size of the U.S. population and then compare those estimates to the census counts…

The results show that the 2020 Census undercounted the Black or African American population, the American Indian or Alaska Native population living on a reservation, the Hispanic or Latino population, and people who reported being of Some Other Race.

On the other hand, the 2020 Census overcounted the Non-Hispanic White population and the Asian population. The Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander population was neither overcounted nor undercounted according to the findings.

Among age groups, the 2020 Census undercounted children 0 to 17 years old, particularly young children 0 to 4 years old. Young children are persistently undercounted in the decennial census.

I can imagine how some might read this story: the Census uses estimates and additional data to make claims about what is supposed to be a comprehensive count? Here are some quick thoughts in response:

  1. The numbers might sound like a lot: an undercount of the total population of 18.8 million? Yet, the error rates for separate groups are reported often between 1-4% and the total is off less than 6%.
  2. If the official numbers are known to be overcounts or undercounts, how might researchers take that into account when using the data?
  3. The Census is using multiple data sources to try to both get the most accurate statistics and improve its methodology. Explaining this publicly hopefully helps builds trust in the process and the numbers.
  4. It will be interesting to see how all of this informs future data gathering efforts. If there are consistent undercounts with certain groups, what changes in the coming years? If other data sources provide useful information, such as vital records, can these be incorporated into the data? And so on.

Collecting data about the population of a large country is no easy task and is a work in progress.

Fighting the 2020 Census population count in Aurora, Illinois

Leaders in Aurora, Illinois are not happy about the 2020 Census results that suggest the second largest city in Illinois lost 17,000 residents:

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said this week the city will continue its fight to get what it considers a more accurate census count…

[The 2020 Census] showed Aurora had lost about 17,000 residents during the past 10 years – about the equivalent of one of the city’s 10 wards – and officials have said they doubted that kind of population loss would have gone unnoticed among other city metrics, such as housing stock, water customers and traffic counts…

The big concern is that the city has estimated the new count could cost Aurora about $31 million a year in lost distributions of motor fuel tax, sales tax, income tax and money from federal programs for housing and education…

He has called for a review of the numbers by the government, and has even said the city could call for a special census down the line.

Another loss for the large suburb: no longer being able to highlight the growth of the community. Looking at the dicennial Census figures on Wikipedia, Aurora has never lost population over a decade until the 2020 count. And the growth has been particularly strong since 1990; the city had 99,581 residents then before growing to 142,990 in 2000 (43.6% increase) and then to 197,899 in 2010 (38.4% increase). In American communities, “growth is good” so a population loss is a sign of something wrong.

A special census could be worth calling for given the money and status at stake. I recall that neighboring Naperville had at least a few special censuses in recent decades as they sought to benefit from a rapidly growing population. The goal would be similar here – acquire more resources – but also different in that the population may have dropped rather than increased.

Given my own knowledge of the area, a drop of 17,000 residents does seem large. This could go against the larger trends of the region – Chicago suburbs and the City of Chicago – which slightly gained population in the 2010s.

Slow housing construction in Chicago area, matching slow population growth

The release of data showing a small population increase in Chicago and the region also included data on housing construction in the Chicago region:

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The number of homes in the Chicago metro area grew by 3.9% between 2010 and 2020, census data made public Thursday shows. That was a slower growth rate than the nation overall, where the number of homes grew by 6.7%.

The slow housing growth was not surprising, as the region recovered from the 2008 housing and financial crisis…

Among Cook and the collar counties, only Kendall County added homes at a higher rate than the nation: 11.6%. It added more homes than any county in the state, likely reflecting the county’s explosive growth in population over the past decade…

The Chicago area’s population growth could be good news for the housing market, inspiring investors and developers to take a deeper interest in the city, Smith said.

Presumably, builders and developers are going to be a bit hesitant to build a lot of units when the population is not growing as quickly. If new demand is limited, why build too many units and risk having lower selling prices? Add this corollary to the growth is good idea in American communities: higher rates of housing construction is a sign of a bright future and a higher status.

I do wonder what percent of homes or residential units need to be replaced each decade. Populations in metropolitan regions expand out – as noted above in Kendall County with double-digit growth – and occupy existing homes and units that may or may not meet their needs. Teardowns are one option, usually limited to wealthier communities where a new home in place of an older one can get a hefty price, but so are denser housing developments, in-fill development, or a change of use for properties (think vacant shopping malls or office parks converted to housing).

Additionally, does this small increase in homes also help address the need for affordable housing? At what price points are these new homes going for? I would guess that at least a sizable percentage of the new homes are out of reach of many in the region.

The ongoing politics of the 2020 Census

The dicennial Census is not just a counting exercise; it is a political matter as this commentary suggests.

According to recent documents from the Census Bureau and the Government Accountability Office, the bureau plans to substantially cut back on door-to-door surveying and, instead, use the internet, the Post Office and other means to determine who is living where.

The bureau thinks the 2020 survey will cost $5.2 billion less than the last one (an estimate the GAO questions), but the accuracy could be called into question. There will also likely be worries about fraud because many of the conclusions will be drawn through “imputations” — educated guesses.

In fact, fraud could affect the House of Representatives elections for years to come if someone isn’t watching.

During a recent hearing before the House Oversight Committee, which maintained control over the Census Bureau after the Obama-Emanuel caper, a key technology officer for the 2020 decennial admitted that a fraud prevention system won’t be fully in place until just a few months before the polling starts.

If the Census Bureau – often led by sociologists and other social scientists who have expertise in collecting and analyzing data – is fraudulent because certain parties don’t like the result, what can be left alone?

Sampling and estimation alone does not have to be a problem. Just because the Census can’t reach everyone – and they have certainly tried at points – doesn’t mean that there is room for fraud. If done well, the estimates are made based on accurate samples – meaning they generally match the proportions of the total population – and responsible people reporting on this data will always note that there is not 100% certainty in the data.

Census 2020 to go digital and online

The Census Bureau is developing plans to go digital in 2020:

The bureau’s goal is that 55% of the U.S. population will respond online using computers, mobile phones or other devices. It will mark the first time (apart from a small share of households in 2000) that any Americans will file their own census responses online. This shift toward online response is one of a number of technological innovations planned for the 2020 census, according to the agency’s recently released operational plan. The plan reflects the results of testing so far, but it could be changed based on future research, congressional reaction or other developments…

The Census Bureau innovations are driven by the same forces afflicting all organizations that do survey research. People are increasingly reluctant to answer surveys, and the cost of collecting their data is rising. From 1970 to 2010, the bureau’s cost to count each household quintupled, to $98 per household in 2010 dollars, according to the GAO. The Census Bureau estimates that its innovations would save $5.2 billion compared with repeating the 2010 census design, so the 2020 census would cost a total of $12.5 billion, close to 2010’s $12.3 billion price tag (both in projected 2020 dollars)…

The only households receiving paper forms under the bureau’s plan would be those in neighborhoods with low internet usage and large older-adult populations, as well as those that do not respond online.

To maximize online participation, the Census Bureau is promoting the idea that answering the census is quick and easy. The 2010 census was advertised as “10 questions, 10 minutes.” In 2020, bureau officials will encourage Americans to respond anytime and anywhere – for example, on a mobile device while watching TV or waiting for a bus. Respondents wouldn’t even need their unique security codes at hand, just their addresses and personal data. The bureau would then match most addresses to valid security codes while the respondent is online and match the rest later, though it has left the door open to restrict use of this option or require follow-up contact with a census taker if concerns of fraud arise.

Perhaps the marketing slogan could be: “Do the Census online to save your own taxpayer dollars!”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m sure there will be plenty of tests to (1) make sure the people responding are matched correctly to their address (and that fraud can’t be committed); (2) the data collected is as accurate as going door to door and mailing out forms; and (3) the technological infrastructure is there to handle all the traffic. Even after going digital, the costs will be high and I’m guessing more people will ask why all the expense is necessary. Internet response rates to surveys are notoriously low so it may take a lot of marketing and reminders to get a significant percentage of online respondents.

But, if the Census Bureau can pull this off, it could represent a significant change for the Census as well as other survey organizations.

(The full 192 page PDF file of the plan is here.)