On a rainy Tuesday morning in Washington, DC, Bruce Katz played to a standing-room only crowd in the Falk Auditorium. He, along with many others, was there to release the latest report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, The State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation.
Using Census data from 2000-2008, Brookings analyzed the demographic transformation of our country over the last decade, providing a preview of sorts to the results of the 2010 Census. The past decade has not been the kindest to the United States, and the findings are reflective of the major demographic shifts that have been taking place, and offer a number of challenges for policy-makers in the next decade, ominously — and probably accurately — referred to as a “decade of reckoning” in the report. Not surprisingly, Brookings finds that our 100 largest metropolitan areas are at the forefront of these shifts. These shifts are broken down into “The Five New Realities”: Growth and Outward Expansion; Population Diversification; Aging of the Population; Uneven Higher Educational Attainment; and Income Polarization. These may not sound new to anyone who has been reading the paper for the last ten years, but it’s this type of detailed, dedicated research that can turn conventional wisdom into irrefutable fact, and hopefully, better policy.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Brookings report is its examination of how the traditional roles of certain cities have changed: Los Angeles and New York, for example, are no longer the leaders in attracting new immigrants. While they still house the largest foreign-born populations in the States, by volume, the largest percentage gains in immigrants over the last decade happened in San Jose, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, and McAllen, Texas.
It is trends like this that led Brookings to believe that traditional regional distinctions — Rust Belt, Sun Belt, etc — are breaking down, and cities could be better categorized by their new “seven-category typology” that takes into account population growth rates, diversity and immigration, and educational attainment. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, for instance, are labeled Diverse Giants; they are diverse, with high educational achievement, but, in part due to their size, they do not grow rapidly. McAllen, Texas, on the other hand, is categorized as a Border Growth city, which boast lots of diversity and population growth due to immigration from Latin America, but less educational achievement.
Arguably the best appellation is the Next Frontier category, whose members have high population growth, lots of diversity and high educational attainment. The only Next Frontier city East of the Mississippi is Washington, DC, which has the highest rate of educational attainment of all metropolitan regions in the country; about 55 percent of adults over 25 have Bachelor’s degrees in the District. Not surprisingly, this tidbit led to a round of self-congratulatory chuckles from the audience.
For me, it was this moment that raised my one and only issue with the Brookings report, and I suppose, the use of statistics in the social sciences in general. Washington, DC residents should be proud of their high levels of educational achievement, but in my experience, this level of privilege and achievement hardly exists outside of the Northwest quadrant of the city. The rest of the city is quite poor and crime-ridden, to say the least. While reading a report on cities with hardly any mention of crime is a breath of fresh air — the two have been inextricably linked in America’s imagination for how long? — it still seems like there might be some human elements that get lost in the shuffle of all the dazzling statistical research. While the statistics are obviously the most necessary, and most robust form of research for informing policy decisions, there are some ways in which statistics can be misleading, as anyone who took statistics in high school could tell you.
Brookings, of course, is aware of this, and their policy recommendations suggest that federal and state governments leave room for local innovation. Bruce Katz called this “Macro to Metro” policy, where the federal government is responsible for making the “truly market-shaping decisions needed to address these new realities,” but at the same time “recognize the diverse starting points of metropolitan areas and, where necessary, ensure that interventions are tailored to those differing on-the-ground realities.”
Moderator Roberto Suro wrapped up the panel discussion by stating that breaking down silos between governmental departments and authorities — the many municipalities of metropolitan Pittsburgh was a frequent reference point — in order to solve increasingly complex policy problems. In that light, it is a good thing that we have started out this decade of reckoning with the Obama administration at the helm. Many of their urban policy programs — like Promise Neighborhoods, the Office of Urban Affairs and the Livable Communities Act — have an urban focus, even if no one will admit it, and encourage local innovation and cooperation between different agencies and authorities. The Brookings report calls for much more decisive, big-picture policy changes, but it looks like we have a good start with the Obama administration.
And, though this may all seem daunting — it’s difficult to read the report and not be at least somewhat horrified — Bruce Katz ended his speech with some words of encouragement. According to him, with our robust growth rates and diversity, we are a “demographically blessed” nation: still growing, unlike our traditional competitors like Japan, German and Britain, and less homogeneous than our newer competitors like China and India. This, said Mr. Katz, could be our “ace in the hole.”