To understand changes in U.S. demographics … check right at home first.

American HouseholdsJust because the housing bubble of the mid-2000s resulted in foreclosures, a down economy, and more young people moving back in with Mom and Dad … don’t believe that more fundamental demographic changes aren’t continuing to have a long-term effect as well.

This is underscored by newly published data on American households issued by the U.S. Bureau of Census, which breaks down statistics on the more than 121 million households in the United States.

As of 2012, the average size of the U.S. household stood at 2.55 people.  That’s a decline of about one person per household since 1950.

What’s contributed the most to the decline of this average has been the increase in single-person households.  According to the Census Bureau, those households now account for more than a quarter of all households in the country:

  • One-person households:  ~27% of total U.S. households
  • Two-person HHs:  ~34%
  • Three-person HHs:  ~16%
  • Four-person HHs:  ~13%
  • Five-person HHs:  ~6%
  • Six-person HHs:  ~2%
  • Seven or more persons per household:  ~1%

In fact, the number of single-person households has gone up five-fold since 1960.  A major part of the reason is the large percentage of older Americans (age 75+) who live alone – more than half.

That compares to only a quarter of households headed by people under the age of 30.

Other interesting factoids from the Census Bureau stats reflect some of the changing social mores in American society:

  • There are nearly 8 million unmarried couples living together – more than double the figure less than a decade ago.  (It was ~2.9 million in 1996).
  • Married households now make up fewer than half of all households.  (In 1970, that percentage was over 70%.)

But one demographic statistic does seem to reflect the consequences of the recent economic recession and the contraction in the American labor force:  As of 2012, only ~52% of married couples have both spouses in the labor force, which is down from ~56% reported in 2000.

United States Bureau of CensusThese new stats come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest Annual Social & Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey, the data for which was collected  in March and April 2012 from a nationwide sample of approximately 100,000 addresses.

You can view additional findings here.

College aspirations: Talk versus action.

College participation ratesPollsters like to point out that people will sometimes voice an opinion about an activity, a product or a political candidate — but what they say doesn’t match the reality.

If that’s the case, it makes the recent revelation that ~42% of ~500 Austrians surveyed in a Market Institut poll believe that Adolf Hitler’s rule “wasn’t all bad” even more scary than it sounds at first blush.

Bringing things back closer to home, a report issued in August 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics states that ~96% of female high school seniors want to go to college … and that among male seniors, it’s only a tad lower at ~90%.

But here’s the actual reality: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that fewer than 60% of 18-24 year olds are actually enrolled in college or have earned their higher education degree.

Enrolling in college doesn’t necessarily mean graduating, either. Only one-third of 25-34 year olds held a college degree as of 2011 (36% of women and 28% of men).

Why aren’t kids going to college even though the vast majority of high school seniors say they want to attend? There are the predictable reasons:

  • Can’t afford college tuition
  • Entered the workplace instead
  • Didn’t graduate from high school (~16% of 18-24 year olds haven’t actually earned their high school diplomas)

But perhaps we’re beginning to see bit of a shift in thinking, too.

Most parents – and many school systems as well – hold up college prep as the primary objective of high school curricula and learning-related activities. But some may be looking at the less-than-lucrative job prospects of graduating college seniors and realizing that the traditional four-year college course of study isn’t the clear ticket to a gainful career that it once was.

Online learning, distance learning, technical training and hands-on mentoring are other post secondary education options that may looking more viable to some — particularly males.

In fact, fewer than 50% of males are enrolling in four-year educational institutions following high school, while for females, it’s closer to 75%. 

It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out over the coming decade.  Perhaps then we’ll have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to see if these trends were a potent of bad things society … or not.

U.S. Government Driving Pecan Growers and Pecan Buyers Nuts

Pecan harvestingThose who contend that the Federal government has no business managing the nation’s healthcare system because it can’t even manage its way out of a paper bag got fresh ammunition this past week.

The Wall Street Journal published an article chronicling how incorrect government data has wreaked havoc in the pecan industry. Evidently, the government vastly overstated the amount of pecan exports to Asian countries and other destinations in 2010 and 2011.

The relatively small size of the U.S. pecan industry (just shy of $700 million production) means that there isn’t a futures market for the crop. Instead, pecan buyers look at trade statistics to determine whether demand will be strong or weak – and lock in purchase contracts accordingly.

When U.S. trade stats purported to show heavy overseas shipments – and with the Chinese market ramping up purchases for the Lunar New Year celebrations – pecan buyers locked in their purchases early. And pecan growers in the Eastern U.S., where the crop is harvested first, did well with supplying the product at these lucrative prices.

But when the “phantom demand” from overseas failed to materialize, pecan prices tumbled. Growers in the Midwest and West found themselves facing pecan prices nearly half the levels of just a few weeks earlier.

The culprit? The Federal government, which published the completely bogus trade figures based on “a computer malfunction” at the Census Bureau’s foreign trade division.

“There were internal processing errors,” division chief Nick Orsini reported.

When and how did the government find this out? Not until one of the industry’s buying firms questioned the figures and reported its concerns to the agency.

The foreign trade division’s “internal processing errors” have since been fixed. But in its wake is a trail of debris that reaches into every corner of the pecan industry.

Some buyers are miffed because they were led to lock in purchases when the market was at its peak, wasting hundreds of thousand of dollars on high-priced buying.

Midwestern and Western growers who harvest later in the season found themselves having to sell their crop at a deep loss, the market having crashed. So they’re not happy campers, either.

One thing’s for certain: Everyone in the pecan industry now knows what it’s like to be burned. And because it’s the government … there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Oh sure, the National Pecan Shellers Association sent an official letter to Federal officials outlining its concens with the faulty data … but that promises to have as much impact as a pecan tree falling in the forest.

And from the Federal officials’ point of view, what’s the big whoop, anyway? What sort of political clout to these people have?

After all, it’s just a ~$680 million industry.

About on par with Solyndra.

It’s Official: Older Cities Take a Beating in the Latest U.S. Census

Abandoned housing stock in Flint, MI
2009 street scene in Flint, Michigan.

While there’s been evidence of significant shifts in U.S. population growth over the past decade, the decennial census performed earlier this year gives us an opportunity to learn precisely what’s been happening and end some of the “speculation.”

And now, with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing its preliminary population reports, we’re seeing how this has played out in cities across the country. While it’s true that the American population has grown pretty steadily at about 2.5 million people per year, some areas have grown much faster than others as a result of being better positioned through the education of their workforce and/or their business- and technology-friendly environments.

Alas, other areas haven’t merely stagnated, but actually lost residents because of failing industries and unattractive business climates, sparking net out-migration of their residents.

Interestingly, many of the cities in the “industrial heartland” of America have managed to stay on the positive side of population growth – even if just barely. But some cities have experienced such hardship that their populations have dropped dramatically in the past decade.

New Orleans tops the list … and who’s surprised about that? After all, Hurricane Katrina effectively robbed the city of one-third of its residents – with most of them electing not to return after establishing new livelihoods in Houston, Shreveport, and other localities further yon.

But New Orleans surely represents a “special case” if ever there was one. Other cities have suffered greatly due to their dependence on industries that took a beating over the past decade. And really, any city with a major focus on traditional manufacturing saw thousands of jobs disappear.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census report on the nation’s largest cities — ones with 100,000+ population — the seven experiencing the biggest percentage declines in population over the past decade are:

1. New Orleans, LA – Dropped by ~129,000 to ~355,000 (-27%)
2. Flint, MI – Declined by ~13,000 to ~112,000 (-11%)
3. Cleveland, OH – Fell by ~45,000 to ~431,000 (-10%)
4. Buffalo, NY – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~270,000 (-8%)
5. Dayton, OH – Declined by ~12,000 to ~154,000 (-7%)
6. Pittsburgh, PA – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~312,000 (-7%)
7. Rochester, NY – Declined by ~12,000 to ~207,000 (-6%)

[I was a bit surprised to see Detroit missing from this list. After all, it’s the poster child for urban decay and depopulation. But Detroit’s population percentage decline was actually smaller than the cities above, and it remains the nation’s 11th largest city. However, the 2010 census will likely show that its population has fallen below 800,000 for the first time in nearly a century – and the figure is even more startling when you realize the city’s population was nearly 2 million as late as the 1950 census.]

Unfortunately, the negative implication of population declines in these proud American cities go far beyond the loss of social prestige and political clout.

Once decline sets in, it can go on for years. The loss of residents contributes to a drop in tax receipts and the subsequent curtailing of social services ranging from police and sanitation to schools and recreation. Home vacancy rates say volumes about the precarious position in which the cities above find themselves – they’re above 15% in every single case (and sometimes dramatically higher).

Confronted with such a reality, too often the result is more people fleeing the urban core, creating a continuing downward spiral that seemingly has no bottom. Representative examples of where this sorry state of affairs can end up can be found in two smaller but particularly grim urban communities: Camden, NJ and Chester, PA.

From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to accept these population reports … and it seems like people should step in and do something – anything – to arrest the decline.

And in the abstract, it’s only natural to feel that this is what should happen. But in the “real world,” who are going to be the ones to step up to the plate and expose themselves (and their families) to the harsh reality of urban pioneering?

Would I do it? Would you?

For most of us, the answer to that question falls into the “life’s too short” category.

A mobile society? We’re not there again yet.

U.S. Population MigrationLast year, I blogged about a startling development in the mobility of Americans: fewer of us moved in 2008 than in any year going back decades.

If there was any proof of the recession’s toll on the lives of many Americans, this is surely it. Not only that, it reflects the lost allure of many of the “magnet” states of recent decades, particularly Nevada, Arizona, California and Florida.

Now, new data covering 2009 have just been released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The latest information reveals that more Americans moved in 2009 than in 2008 … but it was just a small uptick.

Moreover, the increase in mobility was almost entirely the result of people moving within their home counties – nearly eight times more prevalent than migrating from state to state.

What does this mean? In many instances, intra-county mobility may be the result of people who have moved in with family or to nearby rental properties after having lost their homes to foreclosure.

And the low rates of mobility in general may reflect the unwillingness or inability of people to move because they owe more on their mortgage than their home’s current value, thanks to the collapse of the housing market.

William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sums it up this way:

“These data show that the great migration slowdown, which began three years ago, shows no signs of revising to normal U.S. patterns. Since labor migration is often seen as the grease that spurs the flow of goods, capital and job creation, these new numbers are not encouraging.”

Mobility almost always declines during periods of economic hardship. But it’s now clearer than ever that this particular recession has caused the biggest drop in mobility rates America has seen since the days of the Great Depression.