The urban vacuum

Terrific Ron Brownstein piece last week (I love him, but hate that he’s at CNN now.  Though, good for CNN, I guess) on the hugely important, under-appreciated demographic shift taking place.  America’s major urban areas are basically sucking up all the educated people and all the economic productivity in ever greater numbers:

In metro areas from Seattle to Chicago to Washington, DC, new data show that per capita incomes, education levels and the young adult share of the population are rising rapidly in downtown urban centers that were left for dead 30 and 40 years ago. Simultaneously, in many of the same places, incomes, education levels and the age structure is failing to keep pace, or even deteriorating, in the small town and exurban communities at the metropolitan area’s periphery.

This widening geographic separation between town and country — reinforced by a strong urban tilt in such key measures as venture capital investment and new business formation — helps explain President Donald Trump’s overwhelming support in the smaller, mostly white communities that largely feel excluded from the economic recovery since 2009…

Using data from the 1990 Census, and the five-year 2011-2015 average from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the analysis shows that many cities have been revived by an influx of well-educated, affluent, young people, even as communities further from the urban core have struggled to retain those same prized residents. In some places, the inner suburbs in between have also gained; in others they have lost ground. But the tilt in opportunity away from communities on the urban periphery to those at the city core is consistent through all regions. [emphases mine]

The UVA data documents this shift by measuring the demographic and economic characteristics of people who live in the urban centers of 50 large metropolitan areas and up to 30 miles from them. In a series of interactive charts, it compares those profiles in both 1990 and today. That comparison produces a pattern reminiscent of what Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate in 1992, once called “a giant sucking sound” — in this case center cities pulling away the most upwardly mobile people from smaller places.

Since 1990, the overall number of college graduates in the nation has grown, but the gap between the share of them living in central cities and smaller places is widening.

In Chicago, the share of college graduates in the central city has increased since 1990 by 25 percentage points. That’s almost exactly double the increase (13 points) in communities at 30 miles. In Seattle, over the same period, the share of college graduates at center city has exploded by 26 percentage points (from 35% to 61%) while growing just six points (from 17% to 23%) 30 miles out. In Charlotte, the share of residents with a college degree in 1990 was 11 percentage points greater at the city center than at the 30-mile marker; now the difference is 41 points. In 1990, about 1 in 5 people at the city center in Phoenix held a college degree, roughly double the level in communities 30 miles away. Now nearly 3 in 5 center residents in Phoenix have a degree, well over triple the level at 30 miles…

The frustrations of younger mostly minority communities inside growing cities, and the older, predominantly white communities at their periphery, are really two reflections of the same challenge: finding ways to more widely disperse opportunity beyond well-educated workers in a few highly networked urban centers of clustered talent. Trump has responded mostly by pointing blame at foreign trading competitors, immigrants and the political “elite,” while Democrats typically shake their fist at the rich and Wall Street. But both parties are still largely at square one of formulating an agenda that can plausibly channel more of the growth coursing through the biggest cities into the places it has bypassed — both nearby and far away.

This is a big, important change that will definitely shape politics in major ways.  Rob Christensen does not reference Brownstein, but his piece on the struggling smaller cities in NC fits exactly into this pattern.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

4 Responses to The urban vacuum

  1. Mike in Chapel Hill says:

    Is it a coincidence that rate of geographic mobility are also decreasing? I don’t have the sources at my fingertips, but I believe some economists have written about falling rates of people who relocate from higher unemployment areas to where the jobs are. It seems to me that addressing the problem of urban-periphery inequality and geographic immobility requires a comprehensive solution that should include programs to help low-income people relocate.

  2. ohwilleke says:

    “both parties are still largely at square one of formulating an agenda that can plausibly channel more of the growth coursing through the biggest cities into the places it has bypassed — both nearby and far away.”

    To paraphrase Selena Gomez, even if we could, why would we want to?

    High productivity in places with greater population density is one of the most universal as well established laws of economic geography.

  3. ohwilleke says:

    We are also returning to a historical norm that held pretty much continuously from ancient times until the construction of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s, which was a temporary exception to the general rule.

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