Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.

Researchers say half the world is middle class or higher

A new report suggests a majority of humans are middle class or above:

For the first time since agriculture-based civilization began 10,000 years ago, the majority of humankind is no longer poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty. By our calculations, as of this month, just over 50 percent of the world’s population, or some 3.8 billion people, live in households with enough discretionary expenditure to be considered “middle class” or “rich.” About the same number of people are living in households that are poor or vulnerable to poverty. So September 2018 marks a global tipping point. After this, for the first time ever, the poor and vulnerable will no longer be a majority in the world. Barring some unfortunate global economic setback, this marks the start of a new era of a middle-class majority.

We make these claims based on a classification of households into those in extreme poverty (households spending below $1.90 per person per day) and those in the middle class (households spending $11-110 per day per person in 2011 purchasing power parity, or PPP). Two other groups round out our classification: vulnerable households fall between those in poverty and the middle class; and those who are at the top of the distribution who are classified as “rich.”

The consequences could be interesting:

Why does it matter that a middle-class tipping point has been reached and that the middle class is the most rapidly growing segment of the global income distribution? Because the middle class drive demand in the global economy and because the middle class are far more demanding of their governments…

In most countries, there is a clear relationship between the fate of the middle class and the happiness of the population. According to the Gallup World Poll, new entrants into the middle class are noticeably happier than those stuck in poverty or in vulnerable households. Conversely, individuals in countries where the middle class is shrinking report greater degrees of personal stress. The middle class also puts pressure on governments to perform better. They look to their governments to provide affordable housing, education, and universal health care. They rely on public safety nets to help them in sickness, unemployment or old age. But they resist efforts of governments to impose taxes to pay the bills. This complicates the politics of middle-class societies, so they range from autocratic to liberal democracies. Many advanced and middle-income countries today are struggling to find a set of politics that can satisfy a broad middle-class majority.

There are multiple issues to consider here: how all of this is measured, whether the majority is relatively evenly spread across countries or is concentrated in certain areas, and what this might bring.

But, I will point to another feature of this study: it suggests relatively good news. For much of human history, larger-scale collectives – from kingdoms to empires to countries – have consisted of some elites, perhaps a limited middle class, and a larger poor and working-class population. If these figures are true, more people have access to resources and opportunities to do things.

This would fit nicely with some materials I have heard in recent years about a good amount of good news about the global system. On one hand, there are still major problems and sizable poor and vulnerable populations (the less well-off half in this study). On the other hand, global health is improving, economic conditions on the whole are improving, violence is down (in relative terms), and people around the world may be paying attention to the plight of others like never before.

Perhaps this is why even Google has ways of providing some of good news. Even if much news revolves around problems, there is plenty of good news to find.

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.

Poverty measure that goes beyond income or financial resources

How exactly to define poverty  is an ongoing conversation (earlier posts here and here) and here is another proposal that would include two additional dimensions:

If the point of measuring poverty is to capture well-being, we should reframe poverty as a form of social exclusion and deprivation. “Poverty has a wider meaning than lack of income. It’s not being able to participate in things we take for granted in terms of connection to society, but also crime, and life expectancy,” argues Rank. In an era when most deaths by guns are suicides, addiction rates are rising, and U.S. life expectancy is dropping and increasingly unequal by race and education level, capturing people’s well-being and designing solutions beyond material hardship is paramount.

Both of these dimensions have grounding in sociological discussions of poverty. The difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty covers similar ground to the idea of deprivation. There may be a minimum amount of resources someone needs to survive but this is different than comparing survival to normal or regular participation in a group or society. This is particularly compounded in today’s world where it is so easy for anyone – rich or poor – to at least how how others live (though this is certainly not a new issue).

Social exclusion can be very damaging as it limits opportunities for particular groups and often prevents the ability to help shape their own lives through political or collective action. This reminds me of William Julius Wilson’s work where economic troubles lead to the social exclusion of poor neighborhoods from broader society. Other researchers, such as Mario Small in Villa Victoria, have examined this idea more closely and found that some members of poorer neighborhoods are able to develop social networks outside their neighborhood of residence but these forays do not necessarily extend advantages to the whole community.

If researchers did decide that deprivation and social exclusion should be part of poverty measures, it would be interesting to see how the measures are standardized for social science and government data.

Multiple measures and small trends: American birthrates down, births per woman up

A new Pew report explains this statistical oddity: the annual birthrate in the US is down but women are having more children.

How can fertility be down even as the number of women who are having children is going up? There are complex statistical reasons for this, but the main cause of this confusing discrepancy is the age at which women are having children. Women are having children later in life — the median age for having a first baby is 26 now, up from 23 in 1994 — and this delay causes annual birth rates to go down, even as the cumulative number of babies per woman has risen…

 

Another factor, Livingston said, is the drop in teen birth rates, with black women seeing the biggest drop in that category.

See the Pew report here. An additional part of the explanation is that there are multiple measures at play here. A Pew report from earlier in 2018 explains:

But aside from this debate, the question remains: Is this really a record low? The short answer is: It’s complicated.

That’s because there are different ways to measure fertility. Three of the most commonly used indicators of fertility are the general fertility rate (GFR); completed fertility; and the total fertility rate (TFR). All three reflect fertility behavior in slightly different ways – respectively, in terms of the annual rate at which women are presently having kids; the number of kids they ultimately have; or the hypothetical number they would likely have based on present fertility patterns.

None of these indicators is “right” or “wrong,” but each tells a different story about when fertility bottomed out.

Measurement matters and the different measures can fit different social and political views.

I wonder if part of the issue is also that there is a clear drop in births from the earlier era – roughly 1950 to 1970 which we often associate with Baby Boomers – but the last 3+ decades have been relatively flat. This plateau of recent decades means researchers and commentators may be more prone to jump on small changes in the data. Many people would love to predict the next big significant rise or fall in numbers but a significant change may not be there, particularly when looking at multiple measures.

Counting the number of churches in the US

Determining how many churches are in the United States is not a simple task:

According to a recent paper published by sociologist Simon Brauer in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of religious congregations in the United States has increased by almost 50,000 since 1998. A key reason: growth in nondenominational churches.

Using the National Congregations Study (NCS) conducted in 2006 and 2012, he estimates the number of congregations in the US increased from 336,000 in 1998 to a peak of 414,000 in 2006, but then leveled off at 384,000 in 2012.

Brauer’s estimate is more reliable—statistically speaking—than previous estimates that used other methodology; however, his model “relies on samples of individuals and not the organizations themselves,” so there is still a range of variation around the “best bets,” he told CT. Thus, the loss of 30,000 churches is not statistically significant (as it falls within the model’s confidence interval of 95%)…

Brauer’s study corroborates an earlier finding from a team of sociologists led by Shawna Anderson at Duke University, who estimated the average annual death rate of congregations between 1998 and 2005 to be only 1 percent, among the lowest of any type of organization.

Organizations come and organizations go but the number of churches remains large.

The National Congregations Study made a breakthrough in studying congregations by sampling individuals about their congregations and finding that this was a reliable measure of religious organizations. In contrast, trying to find every church can be very difficult. For the 2011 book The Place of Religion in Chicago, the researchers spent years driving all over Cook County to find all the religious congregations and discovered over 4,000. Other researchers have used public sources like websites and white pages/yellow pages to uncover all the churches (though such sources may miss congregations that don’t last long as well as small ethnic congregations).

“Tiny Houses Are Big” – with 10,000 total in the United States

Tiny houses get a lot of attention – including this recent Parade story – but rarely are numbers provided about how big (or small) this trend really is. The Parade story did provide some data (though without any indication of how this was measured) on the number of tiny houses in the US. Ready for the figure?

10,000.

Without much context, it is hard to know what to do with this figure or how accurate it might be. Assuming the figure’s veracity, is that a lot of tiny houses? Not that many? Some comparisons might help:

Between February 2016 and March 2017, there were over 1,000,000 housing starts in each month. (National Association of Home Builders) Within data going back to 1959, the lowest point for housing starts after the 2000s housing bubble burst experienced about 500,000 new housing starts a month. (Census Bureau data at TradingEconomics.com)

The RV industry shipped over 430,000 units in 2016. This follows a low point of shipments in recent years back in 2009 where only 165,000 units were shipped. (Recreation Vehicle Industry Association)

The number of manufactured homes that have shipped in recent years – 2014 to 2016 – has surpassed 60,000 each year. (Census Bureau)

The percent of new homes that are under 1,400 square feet has actually dropped since 1999 to 7% in 2016. (Census Bureau)

Based on these comparisons, 10,000 units is not much at all. They are barely a drop in the bucket within all housing.

Perhaps the trend is sharply on the rise? There is a little evidence of this. I wrote my first post here on tiny houses back in 2010 and it involved how to measure the tiny house trend. The cited article in that post included measures like the number of visitors to a tiny house blog and sales figures from tiny house builders. Would the number of tiny house shows on HGTV and similar networks provide some data? All trends have to start somewhere – with a small number of occurrences – but it doesn’t seem like the tiny house movement is taking off in exponential form.

Ultimately, I would ask for more and better data on tiny houses. Clearly, there is some interest. Yet, calling this a major trend would be misleading.