“A Visual History [of race and ethnicity] in the U.S. Census”

Ariel Aberg-Riger argues in a visual history that the United States Census is implicated in matters of race and ethnicity. From the beginning of the piece:


Numbers are never just numbers: they must be conceptualized and then operationalized, they are collected via particular methods, and then given meaning by politicians, scholars, journalists, and the public. Even a simple count is not so easy, particularly when much is on the line for numerous groups.

More on limits of Census measures of race and ethnicity

Here is some more information about the limitations of measuring race with the current questions in the United States Census:

When the 2010 census asked people to classify themselves by race, more than 21.7 million — at least 1 in 14 — went beyond the standard labels and wrote in such terms as “Arab,” ”Haitian,” ”Mexican” and “multiracial.”

The unpublished data, the broadest tally to date of such write-in responses, are a sign of a diversifying America that’s wrestling with changing notions of race…

“It’s a continual problem to measure such a personal concept using a check box,” said Carolyn Liebler, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in demography, identity and race. “The world is changing, and more people today feel free to identify themselves however they want — whether it’s black-white, biracial, Scottish-Nigerian or American. It can create challenges whenever a set of people feel the boxes don’t fit them.”

In an interview, Census Bureau officials said they have been looking at ways to improve responses to the race question based on focus group discussions during the 2010 census. The research, some of which is scheduled to be released later this year, examines whether to include new write-in lines for whites and blacks who wish to specify ancestry or nationality; whether to drop use of the word “Negro” from the census form as antiquated; and whether to possibly treat Hispanics as a mutually exclusive group to the four main race categories.

This highlights some of the issues of social science research:

1. Social science categories change as people’s own understanding of the terms changes. Keeping up with these understandings can be difficult and there is always a lag. For example, a sizable group of respondents in the 2010 Census didn’t like the categories but the problem can’t be fixed until a future Census.

2. Adding write-in options or more questions means that the Census becomes longer, requiring more time to take and analyze. With all of the Census forms that are returned, this is no small matter.

3. Comparing results of repeated surveys like the Census can become quite difficult when the definitions change.

4. The Census is going to change things based on focus groups? I assume they will also test permutations of the questions and possible categories in smaller-scale surveys before settling on what they will do.

Census data shows increase in people living in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty

New Census data shows that the population of the “poorest poor” in America has grown (about 20.5 million Americans), particularly in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty:

After declining during the 1990s economic boom, the proportion of poor people in large metropolitan areas who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods jumped from 11.2 percent in 2000 to 15.1 percent last year, according to a Brookings Institution analysis released Thursday. Such geographically concentrated poverty in the U.S. is now at the highest since 1990, following a decade of high unemployment and rising energy costs.

Extreme poverty today continues to be prevalent in the industrial Midwest, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Akron, Ohio, due to a renewed decline in manufacturing. But the biggest growth in high-poverty areas is occurring in newer Sun Belt metro areas such as Las Vegas, Riverside, Calif., and Cape Coral, Fla., after the plummeting housing market wiped out home values and dried up construction jobs.

As a whole, the number of poor in the suburbs who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods rose by 41 percent since 2000, more than double the growth of such city neighborhoods.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at Brookings, described a demographic shift in people living in high-poverty neighborhoods, which have less access to good schools, hospitals and government services. As concentrated poverty spreads to new areas, including suburbs, the residents are now more likely to be white, native-born and high school or college graduates — not the conventional image of high-school dropouts or single mothers in inner-city ghettos.

Two things to note: the percentage of people living in poverty concentrated areas is back at 1990 levels and these areas themselves have shifted to new places like the suburbs and the Sun Belt. Are we any better off in addressing this issue than we were when scholars called attention to this like William Julius Wilson in the 1980s and Paul Jargowsky in the 1990s?

It is interesting that there is very little in current political or cultural discourse about the “poorest poor” as most of the current talk centers on the middle class or perhaps the working class. Even Occupy Wall Street seems to be about the middle and working classes. Perhaps much of this group’s anger is driven by the middle-class who now feels the pinch of the economic crisis but the “poorest poor” have been dealing with similar and/or worse concerns for decades.

Drop in US homeownership rate the greatest since the Great Depression

The title of this post is what the headline for this AP story should say – instead, the AP headline is “Census: Housing bust worst since Great Depression.” The problem with the headline is this: do people know what a “housing bust” is? Does this mean that the American housing market is in the worst shape that it has been since the Great Depression? Is the homeownership rate or are housing values at the same level as the Great Depression? Not necessarily. Here is what the story really is:

The American dream of homeownership has felt its biggest drop since the Great Depression, according to new 2010 census figures released Thursday.

The analysis by the Census Bureau found the homeownership rate fell to 65.1 percent last year. While that level remains the second highest decennial rate, analysts say the U.S. may never return to its mid-decade housing boom peak in which nearly 70 percent of occupied households were owned by their residents…

Nationwide, the homeownership rate fell to 65.1 percent – or 76 million occupied housing units that were owned by their residents – from 66.2 percent in 2000. That drop-off of 1.1 percentage points is the largest since 1940, when homeownership plummeted 4.2 percentage points during the Great Depression to a low of 43.6 percent.

So the percentage drop is what is important here: it fell from nearly 70 percent in the mid-2000s to 65.1 percent today. This is similar to the 4.2% drop during the Great Depression. But notice: the homeownership rate in 1940 was 43.6 percent while it is still above 65% today. Overall, we are ahead of the 1940 figures even though the homeownership drop suggests that this recent period has had a similar effect on homeownership as the Great Depression.

Another interesting piece of news from this Census data on homeownership:

Measured by race, the homeownership gap between whites and blacks is now at its widest since 1960, wiping out more than 40 years of gains.

This is not good. The homeownership rate for blacks and Latinos increased small amounts from 2000 to 2010 but the gap has widened. Perhaps the American Dream, at least the homeownership part, has never truly really been available to everyone.

Changes in the Census Bureau’s data collection between 2000 and 2010

While certain parts of the dicennial Census have remained the same, a sociologist outlines some data collection changes between 2000 and 2010:

In 2000 the short form included only eight questions for the householder and six for every person living in the household. These were the same basic questions that would be asked in 2010 about sex, age, relationship to the householder, race and Hispanic status.

About one in six households received the “long form,” which included some 53 questions. In addition to the basic questions in every census form, this survey also contained questions on a whole panoply of characteristics, including housing, moving in the last five years, employment, detailed income sources, military service, disability status, ancestry, place of birth and education.

Until 2010, the long form and short form were distributed in tandem, but then the government split them. Beginning in 2005, the Census Bureau began to collect data for the American Community Survey, which is very similar to the old long form. That survey gets responses from about 2 million households and residents of group quarters (prison, dormitory, institution) every year, and tracks the same sort of data that was produced by the long form sample. The survey takes place all year and interviews, where necessary, are conducted by permanent staff — not the temporary workers who interview for decennial census.

The Census Bureau releases three sets of data each year from the community survey: the one-year, the three-year and the five-year files. The one-year file is released for areas of at least 65,000 in population, the three-year file for areas of at least 20,000 and the five-year file for all of the areas for which the long form was released (block-groups, tracts and higher). The census releases data only for certain locations with larger populations at one and three-year intervals. This is because, since the ACS is a sample, its reliability depends on sample size.

So on Dec. 14, 2010, the Census Bureau released the first five-year file from the American Community Survey, including all the data that used to be released from the census long form. This totaled 32,000 columns with 675,000 rows of data. These data are comparable to what was compiled from the 2000 Census and allow one to answer many questions at the neighborhood level, where data are needed beyond the few questions in the 2010 census.

In summary, two things have changed:

1. The Census has been moving toward more frequent data collection for a while. Some of the stuff that used to be asked every 10 years is now being asked more frequently, providing more up-to-date information.

2. Beveridge goes on to explain a couple of issues with the American Community Survey data, one good and one bad. On the bad side: although it may be more frequent, the sample size is not as large as a decennial census, meaning that we can’t be as certain about the results. On the good side: the Census will no longer have to rely on large teams of temporary staff every ten years but will have trained professionals collecting data year after year. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how researchers treat these new figures.

Overall, this is a reminder that official figures don’t simply happen. They are the product of particular methodologies and definitions and when these protocols change, so can the data.

Additionally, the data is easily accessible (here are the 2010 figures). I’m sure it will continue to get easier to access and analyze the data. This is good for democracy as it is relatively easy for citizens to see the current status and changes in their nation. I wish more people could or would use this data frequently to better understand their surroundings.

Comparing inner vs. outer suburban growth

There are numerous types of suburbs (I think I now have at least 13 different types in one of my lectures in American Suburbanization) but one broad comparison includes looking at suburbs adjacent to cities (“inner-ring suburbs”) vs. suburbs on the metropolitan fringe (often referred to as “exurbs”). USA Today reports on some of the population trends in these two areas:

A new pattern is emerging this century. Most of the growth is happening on opposite ends of the suburban expanse: in older communities closest to the city and in the newer ones that are the farthest out.

“A few decades ago, all the growth was on the edge,” says Robert Lang, an urban sociologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who analyzed 2010 Census data. “Now, there are citylike suburbs doing well on one side of the metropolis while conventional suburbs still flourish on the fringe.”

Close-in suburbs in the 50 largest metropolitan areas added 6 million people from 2000 to 2010, an 11.3% increase. The nation grew 9.7% in the same period.

At the same time, less populated suburbs on the outer edge grew even faster. They gained 6.7 million, a 24.5% increase.

DuPage County, Illinois is cited in this story as an example of suburban areas that are between these two extremes. Such “mature suburbs” had lower rates of growth as they “add[ed] 3.5 million people, a 7.8% increase” over the previous decade.

I like this emphasis on looking at the different rates of suburban growth depending on proximity to the city. There are a couple of stories that one could tell:

1. The suburban population is growing. I still am eager to hear the final 2010 figures that tell us what percentage of Americans live in suburbs compared to urban and rural areas.

2. The fastest-growing suburbs are on the metropolitan fringe. This is what might be considered typical suburban growth and/or “sprawl” as metropolitan regions continue to expand. It would be helpful to know how this 24.5% population increase over the last decade compares to previous decades.

3. Inner-ring suburbs are also growing quicker than the national growth rate. This may support recent findings that people want denser neighborhoods. It would be interesting to see how much of this growth is due to city dwellers moving just across municipal boundaries (for example, did those 200,000 people who left Chicago move to Oak Park or to Joliet?) or whether this population growth is from people from other areas, such as outer-ring suburbs, moving closer to the city.

4. So where does this leave mature suburbs? They are caught in the middle as they don’t have the open land for sprawl development but also are unlikely to have the denser or taller development of inner-ring suburbs. Most projects will either have to be small in-fill projects or bigger redevelopment projects. It will be interesting to see how these suburbs adapt: they were once outer-ring suburbs but will now have to make decisions about what direction to go.

h/t The Infrastructurist

An argument for moving beyond cities/suburbs to walkable/unwalkable areas

A demographer makes an argument for moving beyond comparing cities and suburbs to looking at walkable and unwalkable areas which are not necessarily concentrated in either cities or suburbs:

Unfortunately, the census shines the light on the terms “city” and “suburb”–neither of which are the keys to understanding today’s built environment.

Core cities are comprised of pedestrian-oriented urban places, how Jerry Seinfeld lived, but they also include auto-centric suburban places, like the San Fernando Valley in the city of Los Angeles or the Palisades in the District of Columbia. Likewise, the suburbs of those core cities include classic subdivisions and McMansions, like the home of Tony Soprano, but they also include booming places like Old Town Pasadena, Reston Town Center near Dulles Airport outside D.C., and revitalized Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan.

The issue is where are walkable urban places being built, and they are being built in both central cities and the suburbs surrounding them. My 2007 survey of the walkable urban places in the top 30 metros showed 50 percent of them were in central cities and 50 percent were in the suburbs. In the metro area with the most walkable urban places, the Washington region, 70 percent of the walkable urban places were in the suburbs. These included Bethesda and Silver Spring in suburban Montgomery County, nine places in suburban Arlington County (like Ballston and Crystal City), and the newly built Washington Harbor in suburban Prince George’s County.

I haven’t looked at this 2007 survey data but it sounds interesting. Is there an easy way to demarcate walkable vs. unwalkable areas through publicly available data? While the Census definitions of and boundaries between cities and suburbs might be frustrating, the data is easy to understand and available to all.

At the same time, this argument is broader: it is about comparing denser versus less dense areas. Walkable areas work because residents can easily walk to or access essential needs like grocery stores, public spaces, eateries, and more. At stake here is whether less dense urban areas, like the north side of Chicago with its many single-family homes, are more similar to suburban areas (which range from inner-ring suburbs to very sparse communities on the suburban fringe) or to more central districts like the Chicago Loop.

I would think that suburban areas are more similar to each other in design and culture than to large portions of large cities. But if more suburban areas become more dense (and this may be what Americans want) and the importance of the core of metropolitan areas decline, perhaps this will change.

2010 Census figures show growing urban population

In the last 110 years, the United States has become very urbanized: in 1900, 60.4% of the population was rural and 29.6% urban while in 1990, those numbers changed to 24.8% rural and 75.2% urban. New 2010 Census figures show that this trend has continued:

The U.S. population grew by 27 million over the decade, to 308 million. But growth was unevenly distributed. Metropolitan areas, defined as the collection of small cities and suburbs that surround an urban core with at least 50,000 people, accounted for most of the gain, growing 10.8% over the decade to 257.7 million people.

Rural areas, meanwhile, grew just 4.5% to 51 million. Many regions—from the Great Plains to the Mississippi Delta to rural New England—saw population declines. About 46% of rural counties lost population in the decade, including almost 60% of rural counties that aren’t adjacent to a metro area, according to an analysis of Census data by Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

Based on these 2010 figures of 308 million US residents (though the population now is just over 311 million), that means 83.67% of the US lives in metropolitan areas. I still want to see the breakdown of urban areas: how much of the population now lives in suburbs (50.0% of Americans in 2000 compared to 30.3% percent in central cities – page 33 of this report) compared to cities. It is interesting to note that rural areas have still grown in population even as nearly half of rural counties lost population. Where exactly are the rural growth spots and are these exurbs that will soon become part of a metropolitan region or tourist spots?

(The rest of the article talks about how the population continues to grow more in the South and West. Read more about that here.)

Chicago named 3rd most segregated city in the country

A piece in the Chicago Reader discusses the results of a new University of Michigan study that showed Chicago is the third most segregated city in the country, trailing only New York City and Milwaukee. A few notes about this study:

1. Like many other studies of its ilk, this is based on dissimiliarity index scores. Here is how this is calculated:

The dissimilarity index is a system used by sociologists to measure segregation, with the highest score – meaning total segregation – being 100. The lowest – complete integration – is 0. The numbers reflect the percentage of people from one race (black and white are measured here) that would have to move in order to create complete integration.

There are some other measures like this with different calculations but the dissimilarity index seems to be used most often. There are a number of easily-found sites online that provide instructions on how to calculate the dissimilarity index (here is eHow’s explanation).

2. The Chicago Reader article and another piece at Salon (with some nice maps and explanations for each city) focus on white-black segregation. The original study also calculated the dissimilarity index for other pairs of races, such as whites and Latinos. These figures are generally lower than those for whites and blacks as the Great Migration of blacks from the south prompted increasing levels of segregation in Midwest and Northeastern cities during the early decades of the 1900s.

In terms of the white-Hispanic findings from the original study, the top 5 segregated cities are Springfield, MA, Los Angeles, New York, Providence, and Boston. On this list, Chicago is tenth.

The original study also look at white-Asian segregation: the top 5 cities here were Buffalo, Pittsburgh, New York, Syracuse, and Baton Rouge.

3. A little more on interpreting the figures regarding Chicago:

-Along with the other 52 most white-black segregated cities, Chicago had a drop (4.8) in its dissimilarity index between 2000 and 2010.  The 53rd city, Greensboro, NC, was the first on the list to have an increase (0.9).

-In the Salon piece, there is a little bit of history about how this segregation came to be in Chicago and black migration, public housing, interstates, and Mayor Daley are mentioned. The conclusion is this:

Oak Park was one of a handful of places around the country where progressive whites made common cause with blacks. But in the Chicago area, it’s the exception, not the rule. Today, middle-income blacks are increasingly moving into Chicago’s suburbs. And though Quillian says that there isn’t white flight like there was in the past, many communities appear to be resegregating. The problem now is white avoidance.

It would be interesting to hear more about this idea of “white avoidance.”

-The Chicago Reader piece also suggests that Pekin, Illinois (a town whose high school has had some issues regarding race and its mascot – link from Wikipedia) is the most segregated city (white-black) in Illinois. However, the story doesn’t add the caution regarding Pekin: there are 857 blacks in the community. The CensusScope page of Illinois cities by dissimilarity index adds this disclaimer:

When a group’s population is small, its dissimilarity index may be high even if the group’s members are evenly distributed throughout the area. Thus, when a group’s population is less than 1,000, exercise caution in interpreting its dissimilarity indices.

It would be helpful if this were added to the story regarding Pekin.

The case of the insistent American Community Survey employee

The decennial US Census has its employees try to contact a household six times (see a quick summary of their procedures here). But the Problem Solver in the Chicago Tribune presents a case where a Census employee working on the American Community Survey (ACS) irritated a Chicago couple:

The first few requests were tolerable. A Census Bureau worker would knock on John and Beverly Scott’s door and ask them to fill out an American Community Survey. The McKinley Park couple would politely decline.

But as the days passed, the visits became more frequent and the requests more urgent.

Some evenings, the doorbell would ring at dinnertime, then again at 10 p.m…

Scott said the requests had become so repetitive and annoying, the couple began pulling the old “out-of-candy-on-Halloween trick.”

“I work afternoons, and I’m not home,” Scott said. “My wife has to sit with the lights off because she doesn’t want to be bothered.”

Often, even that doesn’t work.

“They knock and knock and knock and ring and ring and ring,” Beverly Scott said. “Knocking longer is not going to make me answer the door, and it’s not going to help if we’re not here.”

The final straw, John Scott said, was when a Census Bureau employee told him he would be fined $2,000 if he did not fill out the 48-question survey.

When contacted by the Problem Solver, the regional ACS office said the couple would not be fined (though the government could do this) and they would stop trying to contact the couple (and they did stop).

Surveys that pick out samples that are representative often will work hard to contact the initial respondents. If they can’t make contact or get a response, then they move on to other people who might fit what they are looking for, adding time and resources that need to be spend for the project.

Interestingly, the couple in question also notes that although they filled out their decennial survey, they are not interested in filling out the American Community Survey because they see it as too intrusive:

But they’re not too keen on the American Community Survey, a more in-depth, ongoing questionnaire the Census Bureau conducts to compile information on area demographics, consumer patterns and economic issues.

In particular, the Scotts did not want to answer questions they found too personal, such as inquiries about their income, when they left for work and their health.

“The new questionnaire has gone way over the line,” Scott said. “We have told the representative that we are not going to answer private questions, but they continue to come to our door at all hours of the day and night.”

There were occasional reports of people who felt the same about the 2010 decennial census with some suggesting that a Census should only gather a head count and no other information. But in the future, the US Census has suggested that the ACS will play an increasingly important role as the government looks to collect more frequent data. As the story suggests, the ACS data is important for determining “the Consumer Price Index and how federal funding is allocated.” Rather than waiting every 10 years for a more comprehensive counting, the ACS provides more up-to-data that governments (from the federal to local level), researchers, and the public can utilize.