Another Potential Cultural Shift

The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that a greater percentage of Americans are renting than at any time in the last 50 years.  According to the Bureau, in 2016 36.6 percent of the heads of households rented their place of residence — the most since 1965.  43.3 million heads of household are renters, and the percentage of renters among heads of household has increased from 31.2 percent in 2006 to 36.6 percent.

120301_24b_forrent-crop-rectangle3-largeWhy are we seeing these shifts?  The authors of the Census Bureau study attribute the movement toward renting to lingering concerns about owning a home stemming from the Great Recession, rising house prices, and young people who are so burdened by student loan debt that they simply can’t afford to purchase a home.  Millennials are the most likely to rent their place of residence:  in 2016, 65 percent of heads of household under age 35 are renters.  And there may be other factors at play, like the potential difficulties of selling a home in an economy where you might need to pick up stakes and move to another city in order to advance in your career.  Who wants to be saddled with a house, and fretting about whether you can sell it, under those circumstances?

I’ve got no doubt that these factors, and others, are contributing to the movement toward renting.  In my experience, young people these days are a lot more thoughtful and analytical about their housing decisions than was the case with people of my generation.  We were raised on concepts of the American Dream in which owning your own home was a fundamental part of the puzzle, and as a result the decision to buy a house was almost a reflexive, automatic act.  Now it seems that people generally, and young people specifically, are more carefully weighing their options and concluding that, for many, renting makes a lot more sense — whether it is because of a desire to be flexible, or because renting often allows them to live closer to their workplaces and areas that offer lots of social activities, or because living in an apartment building can provide a kind of ready-built community, or because of concerns about getting stuck with an overpriced house, or something else.  It’s one of the reasons why, in Columbus, the rental market is exceptionally hot and people are building new rental units left and right.

We may be seeing a shift in cultural norms, away from defining success as owning a tidy home in the suburbs and mowing your lawn every Saturday during the summer.  If, like me, you’re not a fan of suburban sprawl and would like to see our existing city areas revitalized, the movement toward renting is not a bad thing.

 

Ohio’s Continuing Population Shift

When our family moved from Akron to Columbus in 1970, Cleveland was the largest city in Ohio by a wide margin, and Cuyahoga County, Cleveland’s home county, was by far the most populous county in the state.  Franklin County, where Columbus is located, had less than half of the population of Cuyahoga County, and it wasn’t even Ohio’s second most populated county.  That status belonged to Hamilton County, thanks to Cincinnati.

94oh_-_columbus_-_birds_eye_view_1But in the years since then, population forces have worked inexorably in favor of Columbus and Franklin County.  With its stable mix of white-collar jobs — from employers like the state, county, and city government, the Ohio State University, hospitals, and insurance companies — and a culture that visitors see as friendly and welcoming, Franklin County has steadily grown since the days of the Nixon Administration.  Many people who’ve come to the city for college, or a hospital residency, or a graduate degree, have liked it and decided to stay and raise their families here.  Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, on the other hand, have seen both the departure of blue-collar jobs and employers and ongoing population loss.

And now the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Franklin County has passed Cuyahoga County and become the most populous county in Ohio, with more than 1.2 million residents.  CFranklin County isn’t one of the fastest growing counties in the United States — no counties in the Midwest are — but its consistent growth, year after year, has produced a long-term result that would have surprised anyone who lived in Ohio in 1970.

Actually, I shouldn’t say that, because at least one person saw the trends.  I took a class in investigative reporting at Ohio State in the late ’70s, and the professor, Marty Brian, gave us the project of writing about the growth and future of Columbus, given its business attributes and employment stability described above.  The would-be Woodward and Bernsteins in the class groaned at the project, which didn’t have much sex appeal, but it turned out to be an interesting assignment that required us to delve into public records and other nuts and bolts aspects of investigative reporting.  And now the gist of the assignment has been proven in the population data.

Redefining Poverty

What does it mean to be poor in the United States?  How do people who fall below the “poverty line” actually live?  What kinds of amenities, if any, do they have?

The Heritage Foundation tried to answer these questions in a recent study.  Its report notes that, although the Census Bureau consistently reports that more than 30 million Americans live “in poverty,” the Census Bureau does not provide data on the living conditions of people in that category.  To try to answer that question, the Heritage Foundation turned to another government study, called the Residential Energy Consumption Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy.  The data from that survey is eye-opening.  The Heritage Foundation study found that the vast majority of families whose cash incomes are below the official poverty thresholds enjoy significant amenities.  For example, more than 78 percent of those households have air conditioning, more than 65 percent have more than one television set, and more than 63 percent have cable television.  Indeed, nearly one third of those households have more than two televisions and almost 30 percent have a video game system.

The report highlights the disconnect between what many Americans view as true poverty and how our government defines poverty.  I doubt if many people would consider a family with air conditioning, multiple television sets, cable TV, and a video game system to be impoverished.  In fact, most of us over a certain age grew up in households without such amenities, and we certainly didn’t consider our families to be poor or needing help.

I understand that the standards defining poverty will change over time.  However, the Heritage Foundation report suggests that the government should reexamine income cutoffs that treat people with air conditioning, multiple TVs, and video game consoles as impoverished.  Government programs and assistance should be reserved for the truly needy — not for people who are simply lacking the latest version of a Nintendo game system.

 

The Jarring Questions On The Census Form

Today we filled out the census form for our household.  The form itself is interesting.  You are asked how many people live in your household and whether you own your own home with or without a mortgage, or rent, or “occupy without payment of rent.”  (I guess the latter category refers to people who live in government housing.)  You are asked your telephone number and your name.  And then you are asked a bunch of demographic questions about the members of your household.  What is their gender?  What is their age?  And, most noticeably, are they of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” and what is their “race” — “white,” “Black, African Am., or Negro,” “Japanese,” or “some other race,” among a number of other options?

The Census Bureau website offers explanations for why each of the questions is asked.  The website states that the Hispanic question (question no. eight) has been asked since 1970 to provide data to federal agencies to use in monitoring compliance with federal anti-discrimination provisions and to state and local agencies to help plan and administer bilingual programs.  With respect to the general “race” question (question no. nine), the website states that “race is key to implementing many federal laws” and that race data are needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, to “assess fairness of employment practices,” to “monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education” and “to plan and obtain funds for public services.”  The website adds that the race-related information also  is used by state and local governments to establish congressional and state voting districts.

The census has a long history of asking demographic and race-related questions.  According to the Census Bureau website, the first U.S. census, which was taken by U.S. marshals in 1790, asked for the name of the head of household and the number of people who fell into various categories — free white males over age 16, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves.

Nevertheless, you would like to think that by 2010 — decades after our nation’s sordid history of legalized slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws and other forms of legalized bigotry and discrimination, was finally ended by the civil rights movement and the enactment of federal statutes designed to enforce constitutional guarantees of equal protection and to bar discrimination in voting, housing, and employment — we would have gotten past a fixation upon race and counting and categorizing people on racial grounds.  It is jarring, dispiriting, and seemingly inconsistent with the ultimate goal of a color-blind society for a federal government agency to ask people to identify themselves as “black,” “white,” or a member of some other racial group and to say that “race is key to implementing many federal laws.”

Clearly, when it comes to race we haven’t progressed as far or as fast as we might have hoped.  Let’s hope that, when the 2020 census rolls around, the race-related questions are gone and are considered as archaic as the questions asked in 1790.