Even as the nation conducts its critically important decennial census, a demographic picture of the rapidly changing population of the United States is emerging. It underlines how suburban living has become the dominant experience for all key groups in America’s 21st Century Electorate.
While suburban living was once seen as the almost exclusive preserve of the white upper-middle class, a majority of all major American racial and ethnic groups now live in suburbia, according to the newest report on the state of metropolitan America from the Brookings Institute. Slightly more than half of African-Americans now live in large metropolitan suburbs, as do 59% of Hispanics, almost 62% of Asian-Americans, and 78% of whites. As a result the country is closer than ever to achieving a goal that many thought would never be achieved: city/suburban racial/ethnic integration. This is particularly so in the faster growing metropolitan areas of the South and West.
The trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. A majority of Millennials live in the suburbs and 43% of them, a portion higher than for any other generation, describe suburbs as their “ideal place to live.”
The nation’s one hundred largest metropolitan areas have grown twice as fast as the rest of the country in the last decade. That growth was heavily concentrated in lower density suburbs, which grew at three times the rate of cities or inner ring suburbs. At the same time, one third of the nation’s overall population growth was due to immigration. As a result about one-quarter of all children in the United States have at least one immigrant parent. In 2008, non whites became a majority of Americans less than eighteen years old, a demographic milestone that underlines just how fast and how dramatically the country is changing. Any political party that wants to build a lasting electoral majority must align its policy prescriptions with these new demographic realities to attract the votes of a younger, more ethnically diverse population, most of which now lives in the suburbs.
Economic opportunity continues to be the major driver in determining where people want to live and work. Five of the six fastest growing metropolitan areas in the last decade were also among the top six in job growth according to data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by the Praxis Strategy Group. The same five metropolitan areas – Phoenix, Riverside (CA), Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C – also ranked high in the diversity of their population, differing only in the degree of educational attainment their residents have achieved.
With America experiencing the first decade since the 1930s in which inflation adjusted median income declined and job creation slowed to levels not seen in decades, this movement to where the jobs are located is likely to intensify, as current migration to economically buoyant Texas cities and Washington, DC suggests. This crucial factor is often overlooked by urban planners who argue that cultural amenities and sport complexes are the key to attracting new residents. In fact, metropolitan areas that focus on job creation for Millennials (young Americans born 1982-2003) and minorities have the best chance of gaining population in the next decade.
Clearly providing higher quality public education experiences is a key part of any such economic strategy. The arrival of stealth fighter parents at local school district meetings across the country only reflects the passion among young families about the quality of education their children receive. They are unwilling to allow Boomer ideological debates to delay the changes needed to properly prepare their children for a higher educational experience that increases the odds of economic success. The traditional separation between municipal partisan politics and nominally non-partisan schools is increasingly outdated when so much of a city’s economic success depends on the quality of the education its residents receive.
Safe neighborhoods of single family dwellings with a surrounding patch of land continue to attract families of every background to the nation’s suburbs. Metropolitan areas that provide such an environment to all of their residents are the furthest along in achieving a more integrated society. Los Angeles, for instance, which is often decried by non-residents as simply an aggregation of suburbs with no central core, has a suburban population whose demographic profile almost exactly matches the city’s population. The fact that most of its housing reflects the tract developments of the 50s and 60s, as well as the city’s low crime rates – down to levels not seen in five decades – are two key reasons for this polyglot profile.
Rather than fighting this desire on the part of America’s 21st Century Electorate to live comfortably in the suburbs, politicians of all stripes should find ways to embrace it and advocate policies that reflect our new economic realities. For instance, rather than insisting on higher density housing and light rail systems as the only answer to the nation’s appetite for foreign oil, the federal government should adopt tax incentives that encourage telecommuting and continue policies to foster more energy efficient automobiles. If all Americans worked from home, as many Millennials prefer to do, just two days a week, it would cut that portion of our nation’s gas consumption by more than a third. The FCC’s recently announced broadband policy will help put in place the infrastructure required to make such a lifestyle possible and even more productive.
Three out of four commuting trips involve a single individual driving their car to work and this isn’t likely to change in the foreseeable future. But putting as much emphasis on making our nation’s highways “smart” as in creating a smart electrical grid would make it possible for the existing highway system to shorten commuting time and reduce the quantity of fuel used in such trips. Recent developments in mobile technology makes this a practical, near term solution if state and local governments are prepared to invest in upgrading an infrastructure that is already designed and deployed to connect people’s homes to their workplace.
Aligning the message at the heart of a party’s programs with the values and behaviors of America’s 21st Century Electorate is the best road towards achieving political victory –for either party – or years to come.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.
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