The US county with the longest life expectancy – and a big error margin

A recent ranking of US counties by life expectancy at birth now found Aleutians East Borough at the top of the list:

This is one of three counties with a life expectancy of “100+.” Out of these three, it is also the one with the largest error margin. If I am interpreting this correctly, the list compilers are 95% confident that the life expectancy of this county is between 67.9 and 100+.

This is most likely due to the relatively small number of people in the county. This is not uncommon in these rankings: of the top 16 counties in life expectancy, the highest population is over 55,000 and several counties have fewer people than the one ranking #1. When there are fewer cases (residents, for this analysis) to consider, it is harder to be confident in the calculated life expectancy. My guess is that this county had the highest expected life expectancy in the statistical model so even with the large confidence interval it ended up at the top of the list.

With fewer people in a number of these counties, the year-to-year predictions could shift more given conditions. Does this mean the rankings should be disregarded? Not necessarily but the confidence interval does provide insight into how the life spans of a small number of residents can change these rankings.

Illinois lost population in the 2020 Census and then it gained population after estimates of an undercount

The Census Bureau reported last week on states where populations were likely undercounted or overcounted. Illinois fell into the first camp:

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The U.S. Census Bureau originally found that Illinois lost about 18,000 people over the prior decade, which was the first time numbers showed Illinois’ overall population had declined since it joined the union in 1818. But after a follow-up survey — something that happens after each once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population — it discovered the state’s population figures had likely been undercounted…

“These latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Illinois is now a state on the rise with a growing population,” Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “ … I look forward to celebrating this development with all Illinoisans, including those who routinely bad-mouth our state.”…

The estimate that Illinois’ population was undercounted by 1.97%, or about 250,000, was the midpoint provided in the survey. The population could have been undercounted by as much as 440,000 people, or 3.43%, or as little as 65,000 people, or 0.51%, the survey showed.

I am interested in methodology and how small numbers can affect something seemingly simple like the number of people living in a state.

The Census Bureau puts much effort into getting the count right. This requires years of efforts leading up to the dicennial census, a lot of work in that year, and many resources put into all of it.

Losing 18,000 people over a ten year stretch is a small blip in a state that has over 12,000,000 residents. Similarly, gaining 250,000 people – the midpoint of the undercount estimate – is just a few percent of the total population. Either way, the Illinois population did not change all that much. It stayed relatively the same.

The real issue for Illinois and its leaders are the perceptions about population in Illinois and how Illinois compares to other states. Many agree: populations of state and communities should be growing for them to be deemed healthy. Population growth is good. In contrast, losing people is a sign of distress.

Similarly, even if Illinois grew by 250,000 people or lost 18,000 people, it matters how this compares to other places. Is Illinois more like Rust Belt communities and states or is it more like Sunbelt communities and states? Can Illinois be a shining light for population growth in the Upper Midwest? An so on.

It does not appear the overcount/undercount estimates will become official population figures so this story will likely continue in Illinois with subsequent Census estimates and political claims about population.

Populations – national or local – can grow or decline through births, deaths, and immigration

While the focus here is on the United States as a whole, this is also worth considering at the community level:

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A country grows or shrinks in three ways: immigration, deaths, and births. America’s declining fertility rate often gets the headline treatment. Journalists are obsessed with the question of why Americans aren’t having more babies. And because I’m a journalist, be assured that we’ll do the baby thing in a moment. But it’s the other two factors—death and immigration—that are overwhelmingly responsible for the collapse in U.S. population growth…

As recently as 2016, net immigration to the United States exceeded 1 million people. But immigration has since collapsed by about 75 percent, falling below 250,000 last year. Immigration fell by more than half in almost all of the hot spots for foreign-born migrants, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco…

The implications of permanently slumped population growth are wide-ranging. Shrinking populations produce stagnant economies. Stagnant economies create wonky cultural knock-on effects, like a zero-sum mentality that ironically makes it harder to pursue pro-growth policies. (For example, people in slow-growth regions might be fearful of immigrants because they seem to represent a threat to scarce business opportunities, even though immigration represents these places’ best chance to grow their population and economy.) The sector-by-sector implications of declining population would also get very wonky very fast. Higher education is already fighting for its life in the age of remote school and rising tuition costs. Imagine what happens if, following the historically large Millennial cohort, every subsequent U.S. generation gets smaller and smaller until the end of time, slowly starving many colleges of the revenue they’ve come to expect.

Even if you’re of the dubious opinion that the U.S. would be better off with a smaller population, American demographic policy is bad for Americans who are alive right now. We are a nation where families have fewer kids than they want; where Americans die of violence, drugs, accidents, and illness at higher rates than similarly rich countries; and where geniuses who want to found new job-creating companies are forced to do so in other countries, which get all the benefits of higher productivity, higher tax revenue, and better jobs.

This matters for communities and cities in at least a few ways:

  1. The “growth is good” model in the United States assumes continued population growth. This is good for status as well as for other things (see #2).
  2. When populations are growing, the incoming revenues help pay for existing infrastructure and services as well as suggest money will be there in the future. In contrast, stagnant or declining populations can require cuts or reductions.
  3. The role of immigration cannot be understated and it affects population as well as demographics and local economics. For example, Chicago would have likely had more population loss over recent decades without immigrants coming to the city.

It will be particularly interesting to see what happens if more major population centers experience relatively little or no population growth while a few continue to grow rapidly. Does this change the balance of power and status among places?

Why people do not flock to the American cities that keep showing up in the most affordable places to live

I recently saw another list of the most and least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States with a key metric of how many families in the region could purchase a home at the median price. Here are the five most affordable places:

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Home prices and incomes vary widely, and there are oases of affordability, mainly in the Rust Belt and Midwest. The top five most affordable places among metro areas with population of 500,000 or more:

Lansing, Michigan: As a result of modest home prices, 90.6 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the fall months were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $79,100. The median home price was $155,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, the builders’ index says.

Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Pennsylvania: Wages here are below national levels, but so are home prices — the median sale price was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. As a result of rock-bottom prices, 88.5 percent of all new and existing homes sold in October, November and December of 2021 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,600.

Pittsburgh: This metro area has a median family income of $84,800 and a median home price of just $166,000. As a result, 88.4 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Indianapolis. This metro area has a median family income of $81,600 and a median home price of $215,000. As a result, 87.6 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Akron, Ohio: With a median family income of $83,300 and a median home price of $165,000, fully 86.5 percent of homes were in reach of median-income families in the state capital.

Two features quickly stand out: the homes in these regions really are cheap (particularly when compared to local earnings) and they are all in the Midwest/Rust Belt.

Still, I have seen some version of this list many times now and I am not sure what to make of them. Why aren’t people moving to these locations?

The most obvious answers to me: it is not necessarily easy to move and these cities are perceived to have a lack of opportunities (economic, cultural, housing, etc.). American geographic mobility as a whole is down but do people actually move just for cheaper housing? What this list does is highlights that median income families can access median level housing in these five places. Get a decent job and owning a house is possible.

There are other possible answers that get more complicated:

  1. People just do not think of the Midwest/Rust Belt when thinking of places to live. Lack of opportunities, the weather, the middle of the country, a Midwestern blah-ness, etc.
  2. It is not just about a lack of opportunity; these are places seen as on the decline. Even if they are cheaper, who wants to live in a place that has already seen its best days when “growth is good” is a key marker of communities?
  3. These communities are lacking incentive campaigns to try to attract new residents.
  4. These communities may not want too many people to move in because it could drive up prices and bring in outsiders. (Yet, growth is good and many declining communities would do a lot to become a destination again.)

In sum: some American metropolitan areas are much cheaper than others, they have common characteristics, and there are a number of compelling reasons why people do not move to the places with cheaper housing.

The relative concept of “the big city”

The United States has big cities of various sizes. For example, the Wikipedia list of the largest cities in the United States ranges from New York City to #326 on the list, Roanoke, Virginia, at just over 100,000 residents. By important measures, whether population size, density, or land size, some places are definitely bigger than others.

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But, a trip this week to Springfield, Illinois reminded me that these absolute measures obscure how different big cities function within their own regions or geographic areas. Take Illinois. The biggest city by far is Chicago and the majority of Illinois residents live within that metropolitan region. Yet, within Illinois there are numerous smaller big cities that anchor sizable areas as well as the big city of St. Louis just over the Mississippi River. If you are in Quincy, Illinois, with roughly 40,000 residents, Springfield at over 114,000 residents might be the big city over an hour away. Chicago is even further away both geographically, five hours by car or train, and culturally. Regional political, economic, cultural, infrastructure, and health systems revolve around these smaller big cities which then have links to the less common truly big cities.

This even happens within the Chicago area. Yes, the truly big city is close and can even be seen from different high points 25-30 miles away. But, in daily activity, many suburbanites do not travel to the big city. They may travel to a different suburb for work as jobs can be concentrated in suburban job centers,e they attend religious services or lessons for their kids in yet other suburbs, and they look for restaurants in entertainment in even more suburbs. The suburban lifestyle is dominant, even thought a world-leading global city is nearby.

Put these different experiences together and “the big city” can mean different things in different contexts. Is it the regional center an hour away, the truly large city with a major international airport several hours away, the sizable suburb nearby that offers some different options, the tourist magnet that many people visit, or the big city as it is depicted on television and movie screens?

Reasons for suburban legislators leading the Illinois Democrats

As American political divides currently sit in the suburbs, the tension between Chicago Democrats and suburban Democrats in Illinois is interesting to consider:

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In adding suburbia to the Democratic base, it turned out, Madigan also created a party that would no longer tolerate his Chicago ward boss style of leadership.

“Suburbanites tend to be less enamored of machine politics,” said Christopher Z. Mooney, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “Machine politics is about one thing: getting jobs. Suburban voters tend to be more concerned about corruption. They’re a little better off,” and thus don’t need the government jobs political bosses can dole out…

While many suburban representatives had benefited from Madigan’s operation, the ComEd scandal marked the moment that “a limit had been reached,” Mooney said. “They felt that his usefulness was over. The fact that they were from the suburbs allowed them to have some cover. Madigan’s political tentacles are more effective in the city of Chicago or Cook County.”…

Suburbanites haven’t just changed the way politics is conducted within the Democratic Party, they’ve also made certain issues more important to the party. Abortion, for instance. In the 1980s, the Catholic Madigan declared himself “100% pro-life.” In 2019, he supported the Reproductive Health Act, which ensured that abortion will be legal in Illinois if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and declares that a “fetus does not have independent rights under the laws of this state.”

The explanations here suggest the changes in suburbs have had significant consequences for politics. As noted above, corruption turns off suburban voters – who often like the idea of more virtuous smaller local government – and there are more pro-choice suburban voters.

I could imagine several other factors involving suburbia that have influenced this change:

  1. The increasing suburban population compared to the population of Chicago. As a proportion of Illinois residents, there are more suburbanites than in the past. This does not necessarily guarantee changes toward what suburbanites want but it could be a factor.
  2. The suburbs have changed in demographic composition. There are now different kinds of suburban residents, including more racial and ethnic minorities and more lower-income residents. The whiter and wealthier suburbs still exist in places but so does more complex suburbia. The suburban voters today are not just more educated whites.
  3. While the comparison above is between Chicago style politics and suburban politics, I wonder how suburbanites view the big city more broadly as compared to the past. Are more suburbanites interested in life in denser communities with more cultural opportunities (even if they are in the suburbs)? How essential is Chicago to the region and state compared to all of the activity – business, cultural, civically – in the suburbs?

US with lowest population growth over a decade in its history

New Census estimates suggest sluggish population growth in the United States between 2010 and 2019:

The new statistics permit an estimate of the U.S. population on Census Day (April 1, 2020) to have been 329.2 million people. If that turns out to be the case, the decade growth rate between 2010 and 2020 will be the lowest decade growth in U.S. history.

Figure 2 displays population growth rates for 10-year periods between the first U.S. census (taken in 1790) and projected results for the 2020 census (downloadable Table A). The projected growth of 6.6% between 2010 and 2020 is lower than in any previous decade, including the Great Depression years of the 1930s, when the nation registered 7.3% growth. It is roughly half the growth rate of the 1990s, a time of rising immigration and millennial-generation births.

The 2010s decade was one of fewer births, more deaths, and uneven immigration (downloadable Table C). Although immigration may have become unusually low due to recent federal restrictions that led to a decline in the noncitizen foreign-born population, low natural increase levels—fewer births, more deaths—will likely continue regardless of federal policy, as a result of the aging of the population. Some of this change can be attributed to lower fertility rates and the aging into adulthood of the last of the millennial population. However, census projections show older populations—especially those over age 65—will continue to display far higher rates of growth than youth.

In the United States, population growth is good. It implies status, expansion, success, new markets, getting bigger, being an attractive place for people from elsewhere to come. And without immigration, what would the population change be?

At this particular moment, I would guess that relatively few people are aware of such data. The Census Bureau continues to pump out information about communities and the country. The average resident may not need to be following such information. Is daily life significantly changed if the decade growth rate was 5% versus 8%? What are the effects of these different numbers on social life, politics, and the economy? Yet, in the broader view, these numbers might be more interesting.

I could imagine multiple ways leaders and the American public might take this data about growth. Is there an appetite for more population growth or an underlying assumption that America – and everything about it – will continue to grow at much higher rates? Is this slowdown in population growth taken as a sign of decline or indicative of multiple social issues? Perhaps other concerns are far more important today that basic demographics. And I suppose other might note that higher percentage population growth requires a lot more people than it did historically when the United States was much smaller.

The American communities paying people to move there

At least a few American communities are offering financial incentives to try to entice new residents:

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Some cities and regions in America’s heartland are offering this sum — and more. They’re seeking to bring energy and vitality to their towns by attracting dynamic workers. With legions of people working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, these programs are getting a lot of attention as people in congested cities seek more space and affordable housing.

Northwest Arkansas launched its program this year, in the middle of the pandemic. Other cities in the nation’s heartland have similar incentives: Topeka, Kan.; North Platte, Neb.; Hamilton, Ohio; and Newton, Iowa

The city had its sights set on the growing number of “laptop workers” who can do their jobs from home — or at the local co-working space or coffee shop — when it launched the program two years ago. Since 2018, it has welcomed nearly 500 new residents, according to Stewart…

The urbanist Richard Florida has worked with both Tulsa and northwest Arkansas on their efforts to attract remote workers. And he thinks these types of campaigns will benefit small cities in the heartland. But only if they’re attractive places to live. Cash incentives won’t do the trick on their own.

This story profiles communities largely in the center of the country that want to attract residents but likely have limited population growth (perhaps due to low birth rates, low numbers of immigrants, and some younger residents moving away) and are not in the public eye. Without long-term population growth, many communities may feel they are stuck. Growth is good – and population stagnation or less is unspeakable.

But, as the story hints, these incentives have not exactly led to a flood of people moving to these locations. For how many people would a payment like this make all the difference? On one hand, people often do desire good jobs – higher pay, that provide opportunities for advancement, in exciting fields, etc. – and some may be able to go where those jobs are. On the other hand, people live where they do for more than just new opportunities or a financial incentive: they may have social and personal ties to a community, be coming from an area that has lots of options, and moving can be costly. Sometimes, people talk as if all people need is a good job or money to move somewhere new. It does not exactly work this way.

I also wonder how these incentives line up with different pressures the people being targeted by communities face. The article said communities are interested in remote workers. I also imagine these communities – and many others – are interested in young professionals. What do these workers want? A financial incentive, a cheaper cost of living, and a slower pace of life in a smaller community might be attractive. But, so might urban neighborhoods in exciting cities with lots of cultural opportunities and plenty of tech jobs and corporate entities nearby. Or, perhaps a walkable suburb is attractive with jobs and culture available via a reasonable commute. In other words, these remote workers could go anywhere they can afford. We are not at the level yet of communities acting like they do to attract major companies with tax breaks but I would not put it outside the realm of possibility in the future.

So you want to live in an affordable big city – that is a suburb

Looking to live a big suburb that is affordable? Zillow and Yelp have you covered:

https://www.zillow.com/research/zillow-yelp-suburbs-cities-2020-28058/

Increased opportunities to work remotely are pushing more Americans to rethink how and where they want to live. But even if there’s less of a need to live as close to urban job centers, traditional urban amenities — think restaurants, nightlife, museums and sports venues — remain a big draw and demand for city living remains high. As a result, many buyers may seek places that balance the space and affordability of the suburbs, while still maintaining that big-city feel.

A new “Cityness Index” created by Zillow and Yelp Inc. helps identify the U.S. suburbs that best strike that balance. Key metrics include housing affordability compared to the nearest big cities and to the country at large, housing availability, the mix and diversity of businesses — including restaurants, nightlife and the arts — and consumer reviews and check-ins…

There were four individual Yelp indicators evaluated for each suburb to determine its cityness.

1. A mix of businesses similar to major cities

2. A diversity of restaurant and nightlife businesses

3. A diversity of arts businesses

4. A high level of consumer activity

This is an interesting suburban niche to highlight: communities for those who do not want to live in a big city but want more affordable housing and want to have some urban amenities. Of course, people could find this in less affordable suburbs or suburbs near the big city or other suburbs that have these more urban amenities. Is there something inherently more appealing in being in one of these big suburbs?

The reason I ask is that many Americans equate suburbs with small town life. The appeal of suburbs for Americans involves features often associated with smaller communities including lots of single-family homes (as opposed to denser concentrations of residences) and local control. Big suburbs often have a lot of jobs and can be significant jobs centers within a region. Furthermore, they could offer a mix of more dense housing as well as single-family homes. But, these big suburbs are also close in size to legitimate small big cities including Providence, Rhode Island, Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Akron, Ohio.

Perhaps if you live in a large metropolitan area, it matters less if you live in a particular suburb and more if you live near your work and desirable amenities within a certain budget. If this is the case, perhaps living in a suburb of over 150,000 people does not matter much. It is still more suburban than the big city but you are not at the edges of sprawl and the price is right.

Interpreting data: the COVID-19 deaths in the United States roughly match the population of my mid-sized suburb

Understanding big numbers can be difficult. This is particularly true in a large country like the United States – over 330,000,000 residents – with a variety of contexts. Debates over COVID-19 numbers have been sharp as different approaches appeal to different numbers. To some degree, many potential social problems or public issues face this issue: how to use numbers (and other evidence) to convince people that action needs to be taken.

This week, the number of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19 approached the population of my suburban community of just over 53,000 residents. We are a mid-sized suburb; this is the second largest community in our county, the most populous suburban county in the Chicago region outside of Cook County. The community covers just over 11 square miles. Imagining an entire mid-sized suburb of COVID-19 deaths gives one pause. I had heard the comparison a week or two ago to the deaths matching the size of a good-sized indoor arena; thinking of an entire sizable community helps make sense of the number of deaths across the country.

Of course, there are other numbers to cite. Our community has relatively few cases – less than hundred as of a few days ago. Considering the Chicago suburbs: “If the Chicago suburbs were a state, it would have the 11th-highest COVID-19 death toll in the nation.” The COVID-19 cases and deaths are scattered throughout the United States, with clear hotspots in some places like New York City and fewer cases in other places. And so on.

Perhaps all of this means that we need medical experts alongside data experts in times like these. We need people well-versed in statistics and their implications to help inform the public and policymakers. Numbers are interpreted and used as part of arguments. Having a handle on the broad range of data, the different ways it can be interpreted (including what comparisons are useful to make), connecting the numbers to particular actions and policies, and communicating all of this clearly is a valuable skill set that can serve communities well.