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Changing Face of U.S. Cities a Harbinger of the Future

Eli Clifton and Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, May 10 2010 (IPS) - The majority of youth in U.S. cities are no longer white, but there is also a growing disparity in the educational background and incomes of those cities’ populations, says a new report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The report details what it calls the “new realities” of who the U.S. is and who it is becoming. Among those realities, the U.S. – as had long been anticipated – crossed a major threshold at some point prior to 2008 when the under-18 population of its major metropolitan areas became majority non-white. Brookings’ analysis predicts the majority of the general U.S. population will be non-white a little over 30 years from now.

But that growth in diversity – non-white groups accounted for 83 percent of population growth from 2000 to 2008 – was concurrent with a growing gap in education and incomes among groups of city inhabitants.

While the number of U.S. adults with a post-secondary degree had increased by 2008, African-Americans and Hispanics now lag behind whites and Asian-Americans in attaining bachelor’s degrees by more than 20 percentage points.

The report also points out that by 2008, high-wage workers in cities were out-earning low-wage workers by more than five-to-one. While high-wage workers’ earnings went up, the number of residents living in poverty rose by 15 percent from 2000 to 2008.

The 168-page report was released Monday in Washington.


It looks at U.S. cities, but the findings could say a lot about the future of the whole country.

“What we’re proposing in this report is that the trends we’re seeing at the national level are further along in the metropolitan areas than elsewhere. These areas are bellwethers,” said Alan Berube, a co-author on the report and a senior fellow and research director with Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Programme.

Berube pointed to the speed and volatility of population shifts in the U.S., a country of over 300 million people.

“Across a number of different dimensions this is a country undergoing a dramatic population transformation. Over the last decade our population has grown by 28 million – that’s half the population of the United Kingdom. Our Western European peers would be astounded with our size and growth,” he told IPS in an interview.

The report also says that large metro areas are generally aging faster than the rest of the country, but that this is a complex phenomenon that does not necessarily mean an older U.S. population.

“The difference between the U.S. and Japan and Germany is that they’re aging but they aren’t replenishing their younger ranks. We are, thanks to immigration and past immigration which is now creating new families with children in the U.S,” said Berube.

A recession-caused retrenchment

The data for the report comes mainly from U.S. Census Bureau survey data between 2000 and 2008. Its authors describe their results as previewing “what we will learn from the results of the 2010 Census”.

The brunt of the impact of the economic recession came in 2009, however, so future data will likely be able to better illustrate its impact on many of the aspects discussed in the report.

“But most of these things are locked in. Aging is structural. Increased diversity and educational attainment is largely structural. These aren’t affected by the prevailing economic winds,” notes Berube.

Still, some aspects are.

“I think there are couple trends which we identified, like the growth of outer suburbs and to some extent the income trends, that may turn in one direction or another because of the recession,” he said.

He pointed to a “retrenchment” toward cities and older suburban areas as a result of slowed migration to the suburbs as the economic situation got worse from 2006 to 2009. This was particularly clear in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tampa.

A ticket out of the recession’s curse: education

“The highest educated places in the U.S. have rebounded more quickly and have been affected less by the recession,” said Berube. “The less educated areas coincide with these Sunbelt cities which built economies around housing. They’ve been hit by reduced migration, some of them are losing residents to other parts of the country and it’s a slow transition and recovery for them as they don’t have the same highly skilled workers as in other parts of the U.S.”

The report paints a picture of a country on the precipice of major changes, changes that will take places in cities first and that will be experienced by today’s youth.

“The pace of change and complexity of U.S. society only seems to multiply with each passing decade,” it concludes. It cautions about responding to that change in ways that will not “sow the seeds of intergenerational, interracial, and inter-ethnic conflict. Understanding – from the ground up – who Americans are, and who they are becoming, is a critical step toward building constructive bridges before they become impassable divides.”

 
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