Twenty-first Century Electorate’s Heart is in the Suburbs

Even as the nation conducts its critically important decennial census, a demographic picture of the rapidly changing population of the United States is emerging.  It underlines how suburban living has become the dominant experience for all key groups in America's 21st century electorate.

While suburban living was once seen as the almost exclusive preserve of the white upper-middle class, a majority of all major American racial and ethnic groups now live in suburbia, according to the newest report on the state of metropolitan America from the Brookings Institute.  Slightly more than half of African-Americans now live in large metropolitan suburbs, as do 59% of Hispanics, almost 62% of Asian-Americans, and 78% of whites. As a result the country is closer than ever to achieving a goal that many thought would never be achieved-city/suburban racial/ethnic integration. This is particularly so in the faster growing metropolitan areas of the South and West.

SuburbsThe trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. A majority of Millennials live in the suburbs and 43% of them, a portion higher than for any other generation, describe suburbs as their "ideal place to live."

The nation's one hundred largest metropolitan areas have grown twice as fast as the rest of the country in the last decade. That growth was heavily concentrated in lower density suburbs, which grew at three times the rate of cities or inner ring suburbs. At the same time, one third of the nation's overall population growth was due to immigration. As a result about one-quarter of all children in the United States have at least one immigrant parent.  In 2008, non-whites became a majority of Americans under 18, a demographic milestone that underlines just how fast and how dramatically the country is changing. Any political party that wants to build a lasting electoral majority must align its policy prescriptions with these new demographic realities to attract the votes of  a younger, more ethnically diverse population, most of which now lives in the suburbs.   

Economic opportunity continues to be the major driver in determining where people want to live and work. Five of the six fastest growing metropolitan areas in the last decade were also among the top six in job growth according to data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by the Praxis Strategy Group. (pdf) The same five metropolitan areas--Phoenix, Riverside (CA), Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C-- also ranked high in the diversity of their population, differing only in the degree of educational attainment their residents have achieved. With America experiencing the first decade since the 1930s in which inflation adjusted median income declined and job creation slowed to levels not seen in decades, this movement to where the jobs are is hardly surprising. Yet this crucial factor is often  overlooked by urban planners who argue  that cultural amenities and sport complexes are the key to attracting new residents. In fact, metropolitan areas that focus on job creation for Millennials (young Americans born 1982-2003) and minorities have the best chance of gaining population in the next decade.

Clearly providing higher-quality public education experiences is a key part of any such economic strategy. The arrival of stealth fighter parents at local school district meetings across the country only underlines how passionate young families are about the quality of education their children receive and their unwillingness to let Boomer ideological debates delay the changes needed to properly prepare their children for a higher educational experience that increases the odds of  economic success. The traditional separation between municipal partisan politics and non-partisan school policy making is increasingly outdated when so much of a city's economic success depends on the quality of the education its residents receive. In this environment, the educational policies of the Obama administration that focus on results and outcomes and not on  process or previous practices should serve as a template for elected officials at every level to follow.

Safe neighborhoods of single family dwellings with a surrounding patch of land continue to attract families of every background to the nation's suburbs. Metropolitan areas that provide such an environment to all of their residents are the furthest along in achieving a more integrated society. Los Angeles, for instance, which is often decried by non-residents as simply an aggregation of suburbs with no central core, has a suburban population whose demographic profile almost exactly matches the city's population. The fact that most of its housing reflects the tract developments of the 50s and 60s, and that former Los Angeles police chief William Bratton used his COMPSTAT crime fighting techniques to bring the city's crime rates down to levels not seen in five decades, are two key reasons for this polyglot profile.

Rather than fighting this desire on the part of America's 21st century electorate to live comfortably in the suburbs, politicians of all stripes should find ways to embrace it and advocate policies that reflect our new economic realities. For instance, rather than insisting on higher density housing and light rail systems as the only  answer to the nation's appetite for foreign oil, the federal government should adopt tax incentives that encourage telecommuting. If all Americans worked from home, as many Millennials prefer to do, just two days a week, it would cut that portion of our nation's gas consumption by more than a third. The FCC's recently announced broadband policy will help put in place the infrastructure required to make such a lifestyle possible and even more productive.

Three out of four commuting trips involve a single individual driving their car to work and this isn't likely to change with the increased growth in suburban living.  But putting as much emphasis on making our nation's highways "smart" as in creating a smart electrical grid would make it possible for the existing highway system to shorten commuting time and reduce the quantity of fuel used in such trips.  Recent developments in mobile technology makes this a practical, near term solution if state and local governments are prepared to invest in upgrading an infrastructure that is already designed and deployed to connect people's homes to their workplace.

Aligning the message at the heart of a party's programs with the values and behaviors of America's 21st century electorate is the best way to guarantee victory this year and for years to come. As Simon Rosenberg has stated, Democrats need to "embrace the coalition" based on the country's new demographic realities that Barack Obama used so effectively in 2008.  That embrace requires not only focusing the party's efforts on the growing demographic groups that now make up a majority of Americans, but also rethinking many of the policies it advocates to make them more friendly to the suburban lifestyle that so many members of the coalition desire. As he points out, "crossing the chasm" from the old coalition to the new will "be hard, but it is in the best interests of the country and the best interests of the Democratic Party."