Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why I don't think Grand Rapids is dying.

Edited at 4:34 to add comparison to national data and clean up the beginning, because apparently people are actually looking at this. Look to the end for my opinion.

Let me start off by saying this is all a bit squishy since I'm not technically using comparable data. [What, you say, your data isn't comparable! Then why are you arguing this! -- well, it's because they haven't released the 2010 data yet, so I'm forced to compare two different surveys. It's close enough for little old me, but this disclaimer is so that none of you come back with beautiful statistical analysis telling me why I'm an idiot. Also, most people don't even know that you can't compare them, so I'm a victim of my knowledge.] Also, I did this very quickly, so I will fix/modify/update/elaborate as needed.

I'm looking at data from the 2000 Census and the 2005-9 American Community Survey. Please leave a comment if you want me to explain the differences or where the data comes from, I'll be happy to oblige.

  1. Yes, unemployment is up (7.4 vs 4.2), but more people are in the labor force (68% in the 2005-9 ACS vs. 65.8%).
  2. More people work in Management, professional, and related occupations (30.6% vs. 29.2%). Professional,scientific, management, administrative, waste management (10.4% vs. 8%) and educational and health industries (23.8% vs. 21.4%) than they did in 2000. These tend to be less prone to economic turmoil than the traditional manufacturing.
  3. Median household income is up ($39,322 vs. 37,224) as is median family income ($46,779 vs $44,224). Per capita income? Also up! ($20,196 vs. $17,661)

  1. Percent of population over 25 with at least a high school education has increased (81.8% vs 78%).
  2. With a Bachelor's or higher? Up to 27.1% from 23.8%.
  3. Graduate/Professional degrees are also up (8.9% from 8%).

How do we compare to the country as a whole? Well, the US also saw an increase in educational levels (high school = 84.6% from 80.4%, Bachelor's = 27.5% from 24.4). And an increase in labor force participation (65% from 63.9). Income levels have increased more/faster than in Grand Rapids, but there are a lot of factors to consider here (and which I'm not dealing with at this time of day - I'm a little brain fried after tracking almost 80 years worth of health care reform legislation for a student). Anyway, here are the US income levels to compare with what I've shown for GR:
median household: $51,425 from $41,994
median family: $62,363 from $50,046
per capita: $27,041 from $21,587

So, long story short, Grand Rapids is indeed below national averages in terms of income. None of this is shocking, since we were below average in 2000 as well. What? You mean we don't make the same as people in NYC or DC or LA? (I should also point out that our cost of living isn't even comparable - my apartment in NYC would be $1800+, in GR? Less than $700.) But we're about at par for the other things. Our labor force participation is higher than national average, meaning everyone hasn't given up on working (that number goes down when people stop looking, rather than when they stop working).

Now, my personal story: I'm not a Grand Rapids native. I'm actually from Syracuse, NY and I went to college in NYC and Pittsburgh. I moved here to take a job at Grand Valley as their government documents librarian (this is why I know about not comparing Census surveys!). I love it here. The people are nice, they take care of each other, there's a strong local scene that supports small businesses, and the cost of living is great! I'm looking to buy a house and stay here, so I do have a vested interest in the city not being prematurely labeled dying. I do agree that the city is changing, and that change is painful. I'm sure some people will say it's easy for me to say we aren't dying, that I haven't lost my job, and you're right. But I think that the standards used by Newsweek to define a dying city are terrible. Population change does not equal death. It equals change, contraction, and probably broken dreams (take a look at all the foreclosures), but cities have survived worse.

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