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The Latest U.S. Census: Portrait of America

August 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: As part of our continuing look at the changing face of America, tonight we examine some of the surprising findings in the latest set of census numbers, the most detailed demographic snapshot of the United States in decades. Among the key findings? We are better educated. One out of four Americans over 25 has at least a bachelor’s degree.

We are more prosperous. The median household income now more than $41,000 annually. We live in bigger houses and earn more, but we commute longer distances. We are more culturally diverse. One in five school-age children speaks a language at home other than English, mostly Spanish. But who are we, and what do these numbers tell us about what’s happening to us as a nation?

For answers, we turn to Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute, a social policy research group in Washington; Rebecca Blank, dean of the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan; and Michael Walden, professor of economics at North Carolina State University. Rebecca Blank, what are the most important discoveries in these census numbers?

REBECCA BLANK: I think there are at least two messages that come out of these numbers. One is that there really is growing diversity in this country, not just the racial and ethnic and cultural diversity that you referred to but also enormous diversity across different regions and different states of the United States so that depending upon where you live you may have a very different experience of who your neighbors are and how much income you and your neighbors have.

The second major issue that I take away from these numbers is that the 1990s really were very good years. The income numbers show really substantial income growth, not just for average families but for families across the distribution. For the average family, there’s a $3,000 gain after inflation in spendable income. That’s a lot of income growth.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Walden, who is benefiting from numbers like this and who is not?

MICHAEL WALDEN: Well, I think as Professor Blank said, it looks like the prosperity is spread pretty much across the income distribution. So I think everyone has benefited particularly of course the people with higher education — more skills. They benefited from the high- tech economy, the growing high- tech economy, the use of computers and information technology and so forth.

If I might add, I think one of the things that jumped out at me was the increase in commuting time. I think that’s reflective of new choices that consumers have to make and households have to make. They may have more income. Where they’re really feeling the pinch is with respect to their time, not only commuting time but decisions about time at work and time with family. I think that’s going to be the new crisis, if you will, for American families: How to use their time and how to get more out of their time.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Passel, one of the headlines that came out of this was the fact that people are, that children are not speaking English as a primary language at home, so many of them immigrants. Was that a surprise to you?

JEFFREY PASSEL: To some degree, but actually as a proportion of the children, the numbers who are speaking English is not terribly different from what it was ten years ago, of the ones who speak a foreign language. So we’re seeing kind of growing spread here. The adults that — the percentage who don’t speak English well – is growing. Among children the numbers are staying about the same, proportionally.

GWEN IFILL: Explain how these numbers reflect a lot of what we’ve been hearing out of this new census which is how the profound effect in change that immigration has brought to America.

JEFFREY PASSEL: Well, we see at least two or three different trends going on here. One is a very large number of people just arrived in the last decade, over 13 million people, which is both a very large number but a very large share of the immigrants.

So the immigrant population has a lot of newly arrived people who tend to speak English less well and who tend to have lower incomes. Secondly, there’s a growing spread of immigration around the country, that immigrants are going into areas that really very few have settled in before.

GWEN IFILL: It’s not just California and Texas.

JEFFREY PASSEL: In fact, California’s share of the new immigrants has dropped substantially from a decade ago. A decade ago, California got about 38 percent of the new immigrants and now they’re getting about 24 percent. So, this translates into two million fewer immigrants going to California and two million more going to other places. They’re not going so much to Texas, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Florida. They’re going to a band of states across the middle of the country stretching from Nevada, Arizona, through Kansas and over to North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Blank, educational attainment, a big part of this. People seem to be earning more advanced degrees. Is that what’s feeding into this prosperity that we’re seeing?

REBECCA BLANK: That’s certainly a large part of it. One of the things that happened over the 1990s is a growth in a variety of new technologies that clearly benefited upper income workers, that made them more productive and feeds through in terms of wages and income increases across the board. We’ve seen a steady shift for many, many years with increases in education and declines in the number of high school dropouts in the country. On the other hand, we still have a substantial share of high school dropouts who are in the labor force for the next 40 years. So we’ve hardly solved that problem.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Blank mentioned a few minutes ago about the regional nature of these numbers. Are you finding that the results of these kinds of surveys are affecting, say, the South differently than they are the West and the Midwest than the Northeast?

GWEN IFILL: Professor Walden, you’re on a college campus as well. Have you noticed the difference in whether students you work with actually get a degree and those who maybe live around but are not college students don’t?

MICHAEL WALDEN: The income differences, yes, are quite wide. I think we can see that very clearly. North Carolina is a very good example of that. We have high-tech centers in North Carolina where households who have high-tech careers and have higher levels of education are very doing well.

Yet, we have a large number of citizens who for whatever reasons, tradition, made choices perhaps not to get a high school degree or stop at high school. They’re not doing as well. They’re suffering, for example, from lay-offs in the textile industry and so forth. So, you can see that disparity certainly in my state that the future certainly points to getting an education in order to get a good paying job.

MICHAEL WALDEN: Well, I can speak obviously most clearly about the Southeast. We’ve had tremendous population growth. We’ve grown, I think, two to three times faster than the nation. We’ve also been catching up in terms of income. We’re about 8 percent in North Carolina under the national average income — in the 1990 census we were 11 percent under.

Yet there is some evidence that in some of our particularly metropolitan areas income disparity has gotten bigger. And I think again that goes back to the education factor. Households and individuals who have acquired education are doing well. Those who did not acquire education, skills, in some cases, have been left behind.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Blank, there are a lot of people watching this right now who are saying none of this has anything to do with me. I’m not doing that well. I feel like I’m struggling. My kids aren’t going to have a chance to go to college because I can’t afford to send them. Where do they fall in this kind of a survey?

REBECCA BLANK: Well, of course, it is true for a good part of the, you know, some substantial share of the population and particularly for some of the immigrant population, some of the lower income population, some of the less educated population.

On the other hand what is striking in the 1990s is by the mid 1990s, you start seeing wage increases not just among the more skilled workers but among less skilled workers, among new immigrants, among youth. Those wage increases are spread throughout the skill and income distribution so that most people who were working the 1990s saw their incomes rise. Now, the people with more education saw their incomes rise more. But even those with less education saw some improvements.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Passel, one in six children are living in poverty according to these new numbers. Does this disproportionately affect immigrants? Who are the people who are these children?

JEFFREY PASSEL: The immigrants… The children of immigrants are a very large share of the poverty population. The immigrants, as a group, have lower levels of education and consequently lower levels of income. The children are not always… are not all immigrants.In fact, most of the children of immigrants are U.S. citizens. And this is a factor that we need to keep in mind when we talk about the immigrant population, that their children are U.S. natives and disproportionately of low income and in need of increasing attention to language issues and anti-poverty measures.

GWEN IFILL: Another interesting finding in this report that so many more children are being raised by their grandparents, like two million grandparents are primary caregivers for children. What does that reflect?

JEFFREY PASSEL: Well, it’s… We don’t have a good baseline to compare that to, but it does reflect the changing nature of the American family, that we have continued high levels of divorce and we have increasing numbers of adults in the older ages, the baby boom is getting older and baby boomers are beginning to have grandchildren now. We’re seeing the consequences of that.

GWEN IFILL: And, Professor Blank, more women are now working outside the home who are in two-parent families.

REBECCA BLANK: Both two-parent families as well as single mother families. What’s really amazing over the 1990s, and this interacts with the welfare reforms that we enacted in the mid ’90s, is the vast increase in labor force participation among single mothers with young children. You see ten to twenty point increases in labor force participation rates. And, of course, that also reflects the very strong economy, the fact that there were jobs out there and that they were paying better than they had before.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Walden, do you know if this– what is your best guess? Will this trend continue?

MICHAEL WALDEN: Which trend?

GWEN IFILL: All of these trends, the trends towards prosperity and more diversity, and all of these things we’re watching?

MICHAEL WALDEN: My best guess is yes. Obviously right now it’s ironic we’re talking about this now given the state of the economy, talking about how prosperous the ’90s was. I think this is a temporary lull in the economy. We’ll probably be back on track next year. I think we probably will continue to see income gains, again particularly related to skill acquisition and education. I think if I might expand we’ll probably become, continue to become a more diverse economy and nation.

Again I’ll go back to my first point. I think the big decisions increasingly are going to be about time use in families; whether both parents work or not. How much they work. Is there a time deficit with children? What are the effects of both parents working on children and children’s performance? I think that’s going to be the big issue — that you can’t exactly measure with dollars and cents, yet it’s very significant.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Blank, what is your response to the same question about these trends continuing?

REBECCA BLANK: I think it’s likely these trends are going to continue. I agree with my colleague from North Carolina, though there is a real question here. Will the next decade of the early 2000s look like the 1990s or will it look like the 1980s. We had strong income growth in the 1980s but it was almost entirely captured by the upper half of the income distribution. Lower skill workers gained almost nothing. In fact, some of them lost ground in that decade. So the real question is can we keep this growth going and have it spread more equitably across the nation? That’s not just an economic question. That’s very much a political and social question as well.

GWEN IFILL: And how about the other point which Professor Walden just made about time use, about how do we hold onto time? How can you account for that first of all in mere numbers and is that just a societal issue that we’re going to have to find a way to grapple with?

REBECCA BLANK: That is a very difficult issue to look at. I very much agree with him that many upper income families, you look at the economic income numbers are doing well and still say my life is worse. And what they’re really saying is I’m still stressed out; I don’t have the time to do the things that I want. We don’t measure that well in our national data at all. And it’s something we do need to work on.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Passel, you work at the Urban Institute. What do these kinds of figures mean for people who live in the cities and what will it take for these trends to continue for those folks?

JEFFREY PASSEL: Well, the cities vary quite a bit across the country. Again it’s where you live and what’s happened in your city. A number of cities have prospered in the 1990s, particularly those who have received large numbers of immigrants, who have gone to where there are jobs and who have spurred economic activity, to the point where a number of cities that didn’t get many immigrants are trying to figure out how to get some. I think we’re going to see continued… a continued spread of these populations across the country and a continuation of some of the social and economic trends driven by immigration as immigration continues beyond the 1990s.

GWEN IFILL: And is there something that has to force that to continue?

JEFFREY PASSEL: I think a lot of it has its own momentum built into it. Certainly the trend towards diversity has its own racial and ethnic diversity has its own momentum based on the people already here, and the prosperous economy of the United States, I think, will continue to draw immigrants in.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we’ll continue to take a look at this issue from time to time. Thank you very much for joining us.