Sunbelt cities defy trends in urban population growth…again

by Ryan Streeter on May 21, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

The new Census numbers on metropolitan population growth are out. The Texas growth story continues:

Half of the 10 cities with the largest population gains between 2013 and 2014 were in Texas — Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth. Each added more than 18,000 people. The Lone Star State also had six of the top 13 fastest-growing cities by percentage — San Marcos, Georgetown, Frisco, Conroe, McKinney and New Braunfels.

And even though the latest numbers show a slowdown nationwide in city growth compared to suburban growth, that’s not true everywhere:

[T]he South and West—especially the nation’s Sunbelt—is a little different: Just 21 of the 37 largest cities in the South and West saw slower population growth…U.S. cities that are growing faster are primarily in the Sunbelt: Austin, Atlanta and Forth Worth, for example, saw population growth pick up.

On the rise of the middle class in public discourse

by Ryan Streeter on May 17, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

As every single 2016 presidential contender jockeys to portray him or herself as the champion of the middle class, a little history is helpful. This interesting post from Derek Willis at The Upshot tracks the usage of the term “middle class” over the past 100 years:

As the baby boomer generation began to hit their teenage years in the early 1960s, “middle class” began to appear much more often in the newspaper, according to Chronicle. A front-page article on Dec. 26, 1967, reported that Mayor John Lindsay of New York City said “he believed that the middle class would not desert New York,” while several stories that year mentioned the middle class in the context of racial integration.

The social upheavals of the 1960s arrived with expansions in technology and consumerism, putting college educations, entertainment and more products within the reach of a growing population. In The Times, the phrase “middle class” went from appearing in about 0.2 percent of all articles in 1963 to 1 percent of all articles in 1973, which may seem like a small increase but isn’t. The Times has also increased its usage of “working class” and “working families” since the 1960s, but neither was used on the scale of “middle class.”

This graph shows visually what’s happened:

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Americans still care more about moving up the economic ladder than the rich getting richer

by Ryan Streeter on May 5, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

That’s the headline in this Real Time Economics post based on the latest WSJ/NBC poll.

This graph kind of sums it up:

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While there’s clearly a partisan divide on the issue, with Democrats more concerned than Republicans about the income gap by a 37-15% margin, class mobility is still a bigger priority among both parties.

The most interesting swing, I think, is the 39 to 22% drop from young workers (18-34) to prime age workers (35-49). I suspect this has to do with hitting that stage in one’s career where concerns about the future, savings, college costs for the kids, etc., start to pile up and you don’t feel like you’re getting ahead fast enough.

Moving from low-income to higher-income neighborhoods helps with longer-term upward mobility

by Ryan Streeter on May 4, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

[C]hildren whose families take up an experimental voucher to move to a lower-poverty area when they are less than 13 years old have an annual income that is $3,477 (31%) higher on average relative to a mean of $11,270 in the control group in their mid-twenties. In contrast, the same moves have, if anything, negative long-term impacts on children who are more than 13 years old when their families move, perhaps because of disruption eff ects.

That’s from a new study by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz that concludes, consistent with other studies, that the more time kids from low-income families have growing up in higher-income neighborhoods, the better they do over the long run. This study will likely garner some attention, as the Raj Chetty et. al. paper on geography and intergenerational mobility did last year.

Most federal poverty programs do not encourage geographic relocation. If anything, taken as a whole, they discourage movement. The obvious implication of this paper and others like it, is that we don’t so much need safety nets in which people hang long-term barely above very low standards of living, but ladders upward. Moving to neighborhoods with better schools, fewer kids involved in crime, and a greater variety of social capital is a key rung on the ladder.

David Brooks and networks of opportunity

by Ryan Streeter on May 1, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Writing about claims that more generous federal funding could have prevented recent events in Baltimore, David Brooks says:

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester [where Freddie Gray lived] prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

He precedes that argument with stats on how much money per capita government has spent nationally and in Baltimore. He then goes on to write:

In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.

That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.

David’s argument will surely bring the usual counter-arguments, but the lack of what I call “networks of opportunity” in high-poverty neighborhoods is a reality that anyone who cares about reducing poverty needs to take seriously. And that begins with acknowledging that many of our public programs simply do not help weave those networks together. These sorts of networks are at the heart of the notion of “empowerment” that Berger and Neuhaus wrote about years ago in To Empower People.

Social policy doesn’t usually account for networks. Typically, we stack up data about the gap between rich and poor, and we try to reduce the gap through funding – for schools, housing, food, cash assistance. But most of that funding does little to nothing to weave together the fibers of networks that lead to useful social capital, employment options, and worthwhile longer-term aspirations.

Even in these times, most Americans are proud of the jobs they have

by Ryan Streeter on April 27, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

One thing that gets brushed aside in the midst of our public debates about wage stagnation, inequality, and all the other negative things about the job market is how satisfied Americans are with their work.

Technology, outdated educational systems, globalization – we know the drill. These and other factors keep wages down and keep our job market from being the robust arena we once knew it to be.

And yet people generally like what they’re paid to do.

I was recently looking through the General Social Survey results (pdf) on well-being from 1972 to 2014 and was struck by how satisfied people are with their jobs. People with college degrees are more satisfied than people with high school or less education, but even so, Americans with low levels of education are significantly more satisfied than dissatisfied with the work they do every day (see pp. 47ff. at the link above).

There’s a prevailing narrative that this is not the case. For example, here’s a recent opinion piece from a smart writer who used the drudgery-of-work argument against reforming Social Security. He writes:

The world is full of bad bosses, mind-numbing forms, daily drudgery. That’s why many Americans retire at age 62. They don’t want to work anymore. They don’t like working.

That is certainly true. “Many” Americans don’t like working. But they are not the majority of Americans. The foregoing article is filled with claims based on data, as the author’s usually good at doing, but he offers no data to back up his claims about work.

People generally feel like what they do at work is worthwhile. It’s why they get up day after day. Elites spend a lot of time telling people that many jobs are unimportant and underpaid these days, and yet the people working those jobs tend to say they like what they do.

Why politicians supporting greater redistribution might be surprised

by Ryan Streeter on April 20, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

More on the inequality front: this Economist Free Exchange post summarizes some interesting research showing why politicians should think twice before expecting that voters will reward them for advocating for more redistribution. Among the findings:

[P]olicymakers…ought not to assume that hard-up citizens will support redistribution. In a working paper, Vivekinan Ashok and Ebonya Washington of Yale University and Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton University explain that support for redistribution should, in theory, rise the more a worker’s earnings fall short of a country’s mean income. Yet American attitudes have shown the opposite pattern: support for redistribution has remained flat or fallen as inequality has risen.

Much of this is down to age. Those below 40 follow the expected template: support for redistribution rises in line with inequality. The over-65s are different, perhaps because there are fewer in the “cash-poor” category. In the 1970s, when surveys began, they were more supportive of redistribution than the rest of the population. By the mid-2000s they were much less in favour, doubtless fearing that help for the poor would cut health benefits.

Read the whole post for other research summaries on how being cash-strapped – regardless of whether you are poor or upper middle class – affects behavior in ways that don’t square with political rhetoric and aims.

For a skeptical (if not wholly convincing) counter-argument, see this New Yorker essay.

Why are elites so worried about inequality while most Americans aren’t?

by Ryan Streeter on April 18, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

As someone who once helped build a global index of well-being that considered factors beyond purely economic ones, I have long been interested in the relationship between happiness and economic prosperity.

So I found this article in last week’s NYT Sunday Review of interest. The authors write:

Despite soaring inequality, worsened by the Great Recession, and recent grumbling about the 1 percent, Americans remain fairly happy. All of the wage gains since the downturn ended in 2009 have essentially gone to the top 1 percent, yet the proportion of Americans who say they are “thriving” has actually increased.

The authors contend that the status associated with success has been diversified in recent years, such that it’s no longer purely economic status that matters but also other factors such as whatever makes something “cool.” They conducted research on “coolness” and found some interesting things:

Asking people merely to look at products and people they considered “cool” sparked a pattern of brain activation in the medial prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain that is involved in daydreaming, planning and ruminating — similar to what happens when people receive praise. Our brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, in short, tracks our social esteem.

Their thesis is interesting. It turns out, they argue, that happiness is driven by feeling connected to something that is socially esteemed. This might matter more to most people than climbing the economic ladder. One can argue whether or not this is good or important, but it’s more evidence that there’s more to homo economicus than we previously thought.

Place over space – how do you decide where to live?

by Ryan Streeter on April 17, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

At its core, the simple life for us was wrapped up in our appreciation for walkability. That summarizes our family’s definition of a good place, and that’s what we tell our realtor every time. We want to be able to walk to the coffee shop, grocery and pub. We’ve resided in apartments and townhouses. Once we even tried a single-family home. Today, as a family of four, we live in a downtown high-rise with two teenagers. We haven’t owned a lawn mower since 2001.

That’s my wife, Kathryn, describing how “place over space wasn’t a philosophy of living my husband and I carefully studied and neatly selected. It found us along the way, growing stronger with every move.” Read the whole thing here.

The ten best cities for post-graduates

by Ryan Streeter on April 14, 2015. Follow Ryan on Twitter. has come out with its list of the top 10 cities for recent college graduates.

Contrast the list below with the data on where millennials are actually moving, featured in this post. The latter shows a lot of migration to cities in the south where opportunity is rich and cost is lower. The list is based on a combination of factors such as jobs per 1,000 residents, percentage of millennials, unemployment and concentration of bars and restaurants.

It is thus a list determined a bit more by what people think millennials want than what migration data say about what they actually seem to want. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting combination of cities.

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