Brookings on Demographic Changes

Christine Whelan | Posted on 05/10/10

The 2010 Census results are just beginning to be sorted and tallied, but yesterday The Brookings Institute released a preview of some big demographics trends to watch: White flight is headed back into the cities, the gap between rich and poor is growing at rapid rates and among Americans under the age of 18, white isn't the norm.

The report highlights five new realities:

1)   Growth and outward expansion -- especially of metro areas. Metro areas are growing at nearly twice the rate of suburbs. See my previous post on megaregions vs. sprinkler cities and the ongoing debate about how we should live.

2)   Population diversification-within a few decades, the "average" American won't be a white American. And those in large cities are leading the trend, with majority non-white populations the norm today.

3)    Aging of the population-we're living longer, and having fewer babies, so the median age of America is creeping up... and up...

4)   Diverging demographics of education-as a nation, we're getting more educated, but young minority residents in large cities aren't benefitting from this upward trend. I've written about this many times-as it relates to underemployment, health and wellness, and marriage patterns. This is a biggie.

5)   Income polarization. Especially in the big cities, where, according to Brookings (PDF), "by 2008 high-wage workers in large metro areas out-earned their low-wage counterparts by a ratio of more than five to one, and the number of their residents living in poverty had risen 15 percent since 2000."

So, what to do about these trends?

"Demographic change and coping with the results of that change are beyond the capacity of local actors," said Alan Berube, research director of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program told The New York Times.

First, not all these trends are problematic. Cities very well may be the most efficient sites for the 21st century information-based creative economy. Diversification is neither good nor bad. It's just what it is. And the aging of the population? Well, that's the cost of medical progress.

Second, for the concerning trends-the diverging demographics in education and income polarization-if we take the paternalistic attitude that only the federal government can fix these issues, most of us will just shrug and decide we can't affect change. And that's certainly not the answer. Improving our education system is within all of our control (and outspoken advocates are already making a difference.) Better educational opportunities, especially within urban areas, will shrink income disparities for future generations.

These are powerful findings. But let's not rule out "local actors" to influence change.

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