The Brookings Institution has just published The State of Metropolitan America report which evaluates census and other data for the nation’s top one hundred metropolitan areas. Their conclusions? As a nation we are reaching critical milestones that if continued to be ignored will dramatically impact our collective standards of living in negative ways.
The report outlines five “new realities” to be mindful of. They are: Growth and Outward Expansion, Population Diversification, Aging of the Population, Uneven Higher Educational Attainment, and Income Polarization. These realities, according to the report, are redefining who we are, where and with whom we live, and how we provide for our own welfare, as well as that of our families and communities.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the report is a new categorization typology they have developed to better describe the significant demographic differences in an increasingly diverse American Landscape. According to the report: “Large metropolitan areas as a group are ‘ahead of the curve’ on the five new demographic and social realities that America confronts. However, in some ways, large metropolitan areas actually became more different from one another in the 2000s, making it even more important to understand American society from the individualized perspectives of these places.”
One such typology is the “New Heartland,” defined as metro areas with fast growing, highly educated locales, but lower shares of Hispanic and Asian populations than the national average. These 19 metro areas include many in the “New South” where blacks are the dominant minority group, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as largely white metro areas throughout the Midwest and West, such as Indianapolis and Portland (OR).
The report states that over 100 million of America’s 300 million are seniors and or baby boomers who will require different housing, transportation and service needs than the suburban landscape many have grown up in.
The implications are clear and while the consequences for inaction may be dire, Americans have shown intestinal fortitude throughout history on similar economic and demographic changes and there is no reason why we can’t embrace and leverage these shifts rather than pine for the “good old days.”
My take is we need to get serious in four key areas under the new normal:
- Education: While municipalities across the U.S. are facing some of the most significant budgetary crises in history, we need to be spending more, not less on teachers and programs that deliver the education our children will need to remain competitive. The costs on the back end of welfare, unemployment, crime, etc. far outweigh front-end expenditures on education. Schools need to be run like businesses, complete with P&L’s and performance metrics that go beyond test scores to measure effectiveness of the jobs they do in educating our kids. We need to embrace radical changes in our education process in this country; too much of it is flat out broken.
- Zoning: Decades of giving the developers the upper hand and virtually the only seat at the table in the growth of our cities has created urban sprawl, gridlock, water shortages and a host of unproductive land use that is unsustainable and replete with empty big boxes. Citizens unite! Take back our communities.
- Municipal government: Does every city or town in this country need its own police department? Fire department? Public works, etc? Town councils? Redundant services are in such oversupply providing excess payroll and considerable duplication. I love the great individuality that this land offers, but perhaps it is time to rethink the cost of having a million of everything.
- The Deficit: It isn’t going away, people. Take a look across the pond at Greece. Americans are sick and tired of partisan politics. When we have our Secretary of Defense standing up and publicly stating he doesn’t want or need the money that congress is giving him, and having that message fall on deaf ears, something is clearly wrong. Defense programs where planes are built in 47 states are going to have support of 47 states’ worth of congressional approval, regardless of what Robert Gates wants.
To quote Bob Dylan: “The times they are-a-changing.” It’s long past time they don’t stay the same.