Asking Americans where they live to determine what exactly a suburb is

A recent project asked over 55,000 Americans where they live and the researchers used this to classify what counts as a suburb:

aerial shot of buildings

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Pexels.com

Kolko and his colleagues got a survey sample of 55,000 households to sound off about whether their neighborhoods were urban, rural or suburban. That let them build a model looking at which factors predict how respondents will answer.

Unsurprisingly, many people defined their neighborhoods in part by their population density. But a whole host of other factors also made the prediction more accurate. For example, areas with higher median incomes were more likely to be called suburban. Areas with older homes were more likely to be called urban. Areas with lots of senior citizens were more frequently called rural.

The researchers—Kolko, Shawn Bucholtz of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Emily Molfino of the U.S. Census Bureau—have released data online showing how their model classifies every neighborhood in the U.S., as well as an academic working paper detailing their methods and findings.

It’s a question that matters quite a bit because, by the researchers’ survey, more than half of American households identify as suburban: 52%, versus 21% rural and 27% urban.

A few thoughts based on this summary:

  1. This suggests defining places requires more than just political or geographic boundaries: how people perceive communities and neighborhoods matters. There is a cultural, meaning-making dimension to where people live that is often not picked up in these kinds of definitions.
  2. The next step after #1 is this: if residents of some places may technically live in a big city but they perceive it to be more suburban, they may act differently. Or, if they think of their suburban area as urban, they could lead different lives and favor different policies.
  3. I wonder how this overlaps with previous survey data suggesting Americans prefer small towns which could fit into suburban or rural settings. Here, the feel of a small town might be more important than the actual designation.
  4. The overall proportions of Americans living in different settings are not that different than what the Census Bureau calculates. What then makes this useful information is the ability to provide micro-level data about specific neighborhoods and communities.
  5. Without looking at the working paper, my guess is some of the discrepancies between this model and the Census definition is on the edges of areas: the fringes of big cities where residents could be suburban or urban and on the edges of suburbia where areas could be suburban or rural. These areas straddling municipal boundaries as well as lifestyles could be in flux for a long time.
  6. All of this points to an ongoing recognition of “complex suburbia.”

The US needs the Census in order to keep up with societal change

Even amid COVID-19, data collection for the 2020 Census continues. Recent Census data helps provide a reminder of why we need the Census:

The new data shows that, by 2019, the white population share declined nearly nine more percentage points, to 60.1%. The Latino or Hispanic and Asian American population shares showed the most marked gains, at 18.5% and nearly 6%, respectively. While these groups fluctuated over the past 40 years, either upward (for Latinos or Hispanics and Asian Americans) or downward (for whites), the Black share of the population remained relatively constant.

The declining white population share is pervasive across the nation. Since 2010, the white population share declined in all 50 states (though not Washington, D.C.) (download table A), and in 358 of the nation’s 364 metropolitan areas and 3,012 of its 3,141 counties. Moreover, as of 2019, 27 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas have minority-white populations, including the major metropolises of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami—as well as Dallas, Atlanta, and Orlando, Fla., which reached this status by 2010 (download Table B).

Most noteworthy is the increased diversity in the younger portion of the population. In 2019, for the first time, more than half of the nation’s population under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Among this group, Latino or Hispanic and Black residents together comprise nearly 40% of the population. Given the greater projected growth of all nonwhite racial minority groups compared to whites—along with their younger age structure—the racial diversity of the nation that was already forecasted to flow upward from the younger to older age groups looks to be accelerating…

The unanticipated decline in the country’s white population means that other racial and ethnic groups are responsible for generating overall growth. Nationally, the U.S. grew by 19.5 million people between 2010 and 2019—a growth rate of 6.3%. While the white population declined by a fraction of a percent, Latino or Hispanic, Asian American, and Black populations grew by rates of 20%, 29%, and 8.5%, respectively. The relatively small population of residents identifying as two or more races grew by a healthy 30%, and the smaller Native American population grew by 7.6%.

This is important data to have regardless of what people make of this data. Having an organization that collects and reports important data is valuable to residents, scholars, and policy makers. With good data, people can now examine and use the patterns and trends.

At the same time, it is interesting to see how the Census is trying to market participation in the 2020 Census:

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The emphasis here is more on what residents might get out of the process – federal funds, political representation – with a final reminder of the government mandate since 1790.

Together, this suggests having good data is critical for understanding and responding to social change. Without such data, we are left with triangulated data or anecdotes that do not inspire confidence. The United States is a large country with many interest groups. While other organizations might be able to collect similar data, having it done by the government offers some advantages (though the Census process has long been politicized).

When growing rural communities are reclassified as urban communities

James Fallows points to a Washington Post piece that discusses the reclassification issue facing numerous rural communities:

 

A few years after every census, counties like Bracken are reclassified, and rural or “nonmetropolitan” America shrinks and metropolitan America grows. At least on paper. The character of a place doesn’t necessarily change the moment a city crosses the 50,000-resident mark…

The sprawling, diverse segment of the United States that has changed from rural to urban since 1950 is the fastest-growing segment of the country. Culturally, newly urban areas often have more in common with persistently rural places than with the biggest cities. Most notably, in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have won only the counties defined as urban when the metropolitan classification began in 1950, while Donald Trump would have won every group of counties added to metropolitan after the initial round….

About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area…

If rural Americans complain of being left behind, it might be because they literally are. In government statistics, and in popular conception, rural is defined as what’s left after you have staked out all the cities and their satellites.

This is a measurement issue. What exactly counts as an urban, suburban, or rural area? This is a question I frequently field from students but it is more complicated than it looks.

My short answer: everything in between larger central cities and rural areas is a suburb.

My longer answer: metropolitan regions (encompassing the suburban areas around central cities) are drawn with county boundaries, not municipal boundaries. This means an entire county might be part of a metropolitan region but significant portions of the county are still rural.

My longer longer answer: the official boundaries do not truly capture a suburban way of life. This could be mimicked in numerous urban neighborhoods that contain single-family homes, yards, and families as well as more rural communities.

All of this may help explain why Americans tend to say they like or live in small towns even when these communities are not, by certain measures, not small towns.

The last quoted paragraph above is also intriguing: is rural truly whatever is leftover outside of metropolitan areas? At the start of the twentieth century, the vast majority of Americans lived outside cities and suburbs. As urban and suburban populations swelled, so did their geographic area. It is hard not to think that we still have not quite caught up with these major changes in spaces and communities a little over one hundred years later.

Census 2020 looking to go online

Reaching younger Americans is part of the reason plans are underway to move parts of the decennial 2020 census online:

Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996) account for about 35 percent of the approximate 325 million people in the U.S., according to estimates, and census officials say their traditional means of outreach — mail-in questionnaires, landline phone calls and door-to-door surveys — are failing to connect with this significant segment of the population.

The Census Bureau plans to conduct its first-ever online headcount, which it predicts will generate 60 percent of the total responses for 2020…

However, social scientists suggest that millennials and Generation Z could have a hard time appreciating the importance of the census, having grown up amid a distorted media landscape of instant online gratification, “fake news” and a culture of likes on social networks…

Last month, census communications chief Burton Reist was quoted as saying endorsements from celebrities such as LeBron James are being considered. He described a hypothetical situation in which the NBA superstar urges young people during halftime to pull out their cellphones and “answer the census.”

Moving data collection online would seem to offer a lot in terms of lower costs and easier data tabulation. But, as the article suggests, it brings along its own issues such as cutting through the online clutter and working with celebrities to pitch the online data collection.

On one hand, this might lead to the conclusion that it is still difficult to use web surveys to collect information on a broad scale. Unless a research company has a panel of possible participants in a recruited and relatively representative panel, reaching the broader public on a voluntary basis is hard.

On the other hand, perhaps this should be taken as a good sign: the Census Bureau clearly indicates their data collection has to match what people actually use. Going door to door may not be feasible going forward. If people are online or using devices for hours a day, online surveys might be more attractive.

Almost regardless of how this turns out in the 2020 count, it will be an interesting experiment to watch. What will the online response rate be? How will the Census Bureau have to go about advertising online data entry?

Census income figures misreported based on gender norms

The Census measures numerous important features of American life. Yet, accurate measurement is difficult. A new report suggests reported income can not be the most truthful when women make more money than their husbands:

Researchers found that when wives are the bigger breadwinners, husbands report making an average of 2.9 percent more than what’s in their tax filings. Meanwhile, women who make more than their husbands report earning 1.5 percent less than their actual income…

So why does this phenomenon happen? Researchers say they suspect societal expectations about the roles each person plays in a marriage could be a main factor.

“When married couples . . . violate the norm that husbands outearn their wives, the survey respondents reporting the couples’ earnings appear to minimize the violation by inflating the earnings of the lower-earning husbands and deflating the earnings of the higher-earning wives,” researchers wrote in their findings.

If the misreporting is due to gender norms, might we expect this to go away as more women earn more money? Already, “In about one out of four couples surveyed, wives made more money than their husbands.” Give this a few decades and this misreporting might disappear.

On the other hand, social norms can be last a long time even after society has changed quite a bit from when the social norm arose. If the misreporting continues or even increases, it would be interesting to see how the Census and other surveyors adjust their figures.

Race, ethnicity, ancestry – and which one people identify with

I have followed an interesting urban sociology listserv discussion involving a recent New York Times editorial by Herbert Gans where he notes several mistakes the Census Bureau makes in measuring race and ethnicity. It strikes me that sociologists and others really want to measure three different things and then a fourth piece of information we could gather would help us better understand which three traits are more important. Here is what we might measure:

  1. Race. Largely based on skin color in the United States. A long history of black and white with groups in between.
  2. Ethnicity. Largely based on cultural or national groups. Has become more prominent in recent decades with the Census moving in 2000 to a separate question about Hispanic or Latino ethnicity or discussions about a Middle Eastern or Northern African background.
  3. Ancestry. This could align with the two categories but not necessarily. This typically refers a country or people group in a family lineage.
  4. In addition to the three pieces of information, shouldn’t we ask which category is most important to people? It is true that race in the United States has dominated social relations for centuries. At the same time, race on its own is simplistic. A few examples might suffice. A white Jewish person with ancestry in Russia. A non-white Brazilian with ancestry in Africa. A Chinese person from Singapore. A white person from Tennessee who says their ancestry is American (though it may be in Wales and Germany). Different people will see different traits as more essential to their own understanding as well as how they would like others to see them.

Of course, having four categories like this would complicate the study of trends and groups. But, as more people marry across groups and new groups continue to come to the United States, we need a more nuanced understanding of how these traits come together and matter to people.

“The most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity”

Check out a new map that shows population by race and ethnicity at a very detailed level: SocScape. Curbed provides a brief description of the project:

Adapting a grid-charting system used for mapping the craters of Mars for NASA, Stepinski and his postdoctoral researcher Anna Dmowska, have created the most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity—ever. The interactive tool displays enormous volumes of census information through more granular units, each representing 323 square feet. The result is a visual presentation that’s more accurate and useful to analysts interested in exploring geographic shifts in population and racial diversity.

Stepinski is already picking up on trends in the data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 censes: Generally, white neighborhoods have become more diverse, Asian and Hispanic populations appear to be concentrating in distinct geographic pockets, while largely black neighborhoods have not increased in diversity.

Here is a view of much of the Chicago metropolitan region:

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SocScape, Chicago MSA, 2010 Census by race and ethnicity

From this image, it looks like an improved version of the racial dot maps as it has more geographic specificity. The tool also has some added data layers – here is the same region with the 1990 race and ethnicity data:

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SocScape, Chicago MSA, 1990 Census by race and ethnicity

Quite a bit of change over a twenty year stretch with increasing numbers of non-white residents living in the suburbs.

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.

The clustering of wealthy counties in the United States

With recently released data, the Census Bureau describes the patterns in the wealthiest counties in the United States:

A Census Bureau report on the “highlights” of the data released yesterday noted that the nation’s wealthiest counties are disproportionately in the corridor of territory that runs from Virginia and Maryland and then north along the East Coast.

“Seventy-seven counties had a median household income within the highest range ($81,129 to $125,900),” said the “highlights” report. “Forty-two of these high-income counties were located in the Northeast region, Maryland and Virginia.”…

Nationwide, the median household income in 2015 was $55,755, according to the Census Bureau. That means the local median household income in each of the nation’s three richest counties—all of which are Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia—are more than twice the national median household income.

Of the Top 20 richest counties in the nation, nine are suburbs of the city that serves as the seat of a federal government

It then wouldn’t be too hard to look for patterns in other demographic data across these wealthier counties. One marker – noted in this article – is that many of these wealthier counties are suburban. But, I’m guessing these counties are also well educated and largely white.

It would also be interesting to see how those concerned with inequality would deal with county level data. Many American counties don’t have a lot of control compared to municipalities or states. There can be a lot of variation within counties, both really wealthy and really poor pockets. Usually, recommendations about poverty or affordable housing are made at a municipal or regional level. Is there a way to leverage counties to address particular issues?

Local note: it appears that three Chicago area counties – Lake, DuPage, and Kendall – fit into the highest range in the data. See page 3 of the Census highlights.

Push continues to add Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to Census

This project has been in the works for at least a few years and now the White House is joining the effort to add a Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to government forms:

Under current law, people from the Middle East are considered white, the legacy of century-old court rulings in which Syrian Americans argued that they should not be considered Asian — because that designation would deny them citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But scholars and community leaders say more and more people with their roots in the Middle East find themselves caught between white, black and Asian classifications that don’t fully reflect their identities…

On Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget advanced the proposal with a notice in the Federal Register, seeking comments on whether to add Middle Eastern and North African as a separate racial or ethnic category, which groups would be included, and what it should be called.

Under the proposal, the new Middle East and North African designation — or MENA, as it’s called by population scholars — is broader in concept than Arab (an ethnicity) or Muslim (a religion). It would include anyone from a region of the world stretching from Morocco to Iran, and including Syrian and Coptic Christians, Israeli Jews and other religious minorities.

But the Census Bureau, which has been quietly studying the issue for two years, also has gotten caught up in debates about some groups — such as Turkish, Sudanese and Somali Americans — who aren’t included in that category. Those are issues the White House is trying to resolve before adding the box on 2020 census forms.

This is a good reminder of how social science categories can develop: through a lot of effort. There are social changes to account for here: how groups understand themselves changes over time. In this particular context, immigrating to the United States and facing particular challenges and opportunities leads to groups that wouldn’t necessarily group themselves together to now desire such a thing. Does the Middle East as Americans often understand it line up with how the region is understood elsewhere (let alone in that part of the world)? There are politics involved: who gets to define such groups? How is the data used? There are measurement issues: who would count in such a category? What are the boundaries? Is it a racial category or ethnicity? How many racial/ethnic categories are needed to understand the world?

All that said, the category of white – typically based on skin color – is very broad and often not very useful considering the social changes in the United States in the last few decades.