Wealthy Americans: “Zip code is who we are”

I would argue this is not just true of “the new American aristocracy“; where people live has a significant impact on their lives.

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children.

On an everyday basis, living in a certain location could affect these aspects of life:

  • social networks and local relationships with different groups of people (race/ethnicity, social class, similar interests)
  • schools
  • access to jobs
  • other local amenities such as community services, recreation, shopping
  • health

Now, the upper class may use their zip code in unique ways. The full paragraph that includes the excerpt at the beginning of the post suggests the zip code becomes a way to keep others out:

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children. It’s also slowly strangling our economy and killing our democracy. It is the brick-and-mortar version of the Gatsby Curve. The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more. The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.

This has been happening for decades in the United States as residents of particular races and ethnicities (primarily whites) and social class (primarily the middle and upper classes) had various mechanisms, now some illegal and others more nebulous (such as exclusionary zoning), to keep those they did not like away from their residences. And this will likely continue for decades more, perhaps particularly for the top 10%.

The cultural bubbles of popular TV shows tell us what exactly?

This is a cool set of maps of the popularity of 50 different TV shows across zip codes in the United States. But, what is the data and what exactly can it tell us? Here is the brief explanation:

When we looked at how many active Facebook users in a given ZIP code “liked” certain TV shows, we found that the 50 most-liked shows clustered into three groups with distinct geographic distributions. Together they reveal a national culture split among three regions: cities and their suburbs; rural areas; and what we’re calling the extended Black Belt — a swath that extends from the Mississippi River along the Eastern Seaboard up to Washington, but also including city centers and other places with large nonwhite populations.

Some quick thoughts:

  1. Can we assume that Facebook likes are an accurate measure? How many people are represented per zip code? Who tends to report their TV show preferences on Facebook? Why not use Nielsen data which likely has a much smaller sample but could be considered more reliable and valid?
  2. How exactly does television watching influence everyday beliefs and actions? Or, does it work the other way: people have certain beliefs and behaviors and they watch what confirms what they already like? Sociologists and others that study the effects of television don’t always have data on the direct connections between viewing and other parts of life. (I’m not suggesting television has no influence. Given that the average American still watches several hours a day, it is still a powerful medium even with the rise of
  3. The opening to the article both suggests TV viewing and the related cultures fall along an urban/rural divide but then also split across three groups. The maps display three main groups – metro areas, rural areas, and areas with higher concentrations of African Americans. I would want to know more about two areas. First, political data – and this article wants to make the link between TV watching and the 2016 election – suggests the final divide is really in the suburbs between areas further out from the big city and those closer. Can we get finer grained data between exurbs and inner-ring suburbs? Second, does this mean that Latinos and Asian Americans aren’t differentiated enough to be their own TV watching cultures?
  4. The introduction to this article also repeats a common line among those that study television:

In the 1960s and ’70s, even if you didn’t watch a show, you at least probably would have heard of it. Now television, once the great unifier, amplifies our divisions.

We certainly are way into the cable era of television (and probably beyond with all of the options now available through the Internet and streaming) but could we argue instead that the earlier era of fewer channels and viewing options simply papered over differences? As numerous historians and other scholars have argued, the 1950s might have appeared to be a golden era but most of the benefits went to white, middle class, suburban families.

In other words, I would be hesitant to state that these TV patterns are strong evidence of three clearly different cultures in the United States. Could these television viewing patterns fit in with other cultural tastes differentiating various groups based on class and race and ethnicity? Yes, though I’d much rather see serious academic work on this developing Bourdieu’s ideas and encompassing all sorts of consumption items treasured by Americans (homes, vehicles, sports fandom, making those hard choices like Coke and Pepsi or McDonald’s and Burger King or Walmart and Target). Also, limiting ourselves to geography may not work as well – this approach has been tried by many including in books like The Big Sort or Our Patchwork Nation – as it did in the past.

Recovery best in wealthiest zip codes

A new analysis looks at the recovery of the US economy by zip codes and finds that the wealthiest areas have rebounded the most:

The report found that for the bottom fifth of U.S. zip codes—which the researchers term “distressed”—the medium income only reaches 68 percent of the state-wide median and 27 percent of adults live in poverty. These communities saw employment decline by 6.7 percent during the recovery. Not the recession—the recovery. In the nation’s median and prosperous zip codes, the situation is much brighter. Employment in median zip codes rose by 2.3 percent, while in prosperous communities—the top fifth of U.S. zip codes—employment rose by an incredible 17.4 percent.

EIG’s analysis supports the notion that in the U.S. economic gains continue to be captured by those at the top. “The data outlines two different Americas from an economic standpoint,” said Steve Glickman, the co-founder and executive director of EIG. “The communities taking advantage of the knowledge economy are booming, but the areas where the industrial economy has traditionally held firmest have really suffered. These trends predate the Great Recession, but the recovery has continued to accelerate the fortunes of the most-prosperous areas and the downturn of the most distressed.”

Another piece of evidence to add to plenty of existing material: where people live has a large effect on their lives. And if the United States has persistent residential segregation – particularly by race but also by social class – then these differences by geography will continue to be pertinent.

Analyzing the SuperZips of the Washington D.C. region

There are a lot of wealthy and educated people living in SuperZips around Washington D.C.:

Clarksville sits in one of the nation’s “Super Zips” — a term coined by American Enterprise Institute scholar and author Charles Murray to describe the country’s most prosperous, highly educated demographic clusters. On average, they have a median household income of $120,000, and 7 in 10 adults have college degrees…

A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.

One in four households in the region are in a Super Zip, according to the Post analysis. Since the 2000 Census on which Murray based his analysis, Washington’s Super Zips have grown to encompass 100,000 more residents. Only the New York City area has more Super Zips, but they are a much smaller share of the total of that region’s Zip codes and are more scattered…

Yet many who live in these rapidly evolving communities do not think of themselves as rich or elite. The cost of living, particularly for housing, eats up a large chunk of the two incomes it typically takes to afford a comfortable home in a good school district.

Interesting look at social class today in America; those on the upper end tend to argue they worked hard to get there, deserve what they have, and they aren’t really rich (though comparisons to much of the U.S., let alone most of the world, suggests otherwise). As the article goes on to note, a number of people are concerned about what the lack of interaction with others might mean down the road.

This is a story that has developed in recent years. For example, a number of people have noted that a large number of the wealthiest counties in the United States are in the Washington region. While conservatives tend to tie this wealth to the growth of big government (and the businesses associated with it), how come scholars haven’t looked at this more closely? There have been some studies of a few areas in the Washington metropolitan area, such as Prince George’s County and its large suburban black population or the growth of the edge city of Tysons Corner or responses to growing immigrant populations in Prince William County, but little look at the region as a whole. Perhaps this is a lingering artifact of American urban sociology’s emphasis on some “traditional big cities” like Chicago, New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia and not paying as much attention to newer big cities like Washington D.C., Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and others. Do we need something like a “Georgetown School” or “Brookings Institution School” of urban sociology?