A sharp divide by race in urban residence for young adults

Well-educated young whites are increasingly living in central cities, while well-educated young African-Americans are shifting increasingly to the suburbs

For some time, we’ve been tracking the location decisions of a group we call the “young and restless”–25 to 34 year olds with a four-year college degree.  It’s fair to call them restless, because well-educated adults in their late twenties and early thirties are the most geographically mobile segment of the adult population. The movement of talent to particular metropolitan areas and within those metro areas to close-in urban neighborhoods was the subject of our 2014 City Report.  These smart young workers fuel economic growth, because they’re the dream demographic for fast-growing knowledge-based companies, who are increasingly locating in urban centers to tap this growing labor pool.

Last month, The New York Times Upshot published an interesting bit of data journalism, highlighting the racial characteristics of neighborhood change in the US.  They found a widespread pattern of suburbanization among people of color, and also flagging a contrasting (and much smaller) movement of whites into historically black neighborhoods.

That got us thinking:  How do these patterns play out for young adults?

To get a quick look at the patterns of change, we turned to the indispensable University of Minnesota IPUMS website, which provides a convenient on-line tool for using micro-data from the Census Bureau to quickly tabulate data for custom-selected sub-groups of the population.

For this analysis, we focused on young adults, aged 25 to 34, living in metropolitan areas.  The Census Bureau codes metropolitan area residents as either living in a central city (usually the largest, first named city in a metropolitan area), or living elsewhere in the metro area (in a smaller city or unincorporated area).  It’s a far from perfect disaggregation between “city” and “suburb,” but for a first cut analysis, we’ll let it suffice.  We’ve also restricted our analysis to two racial categories, black and white.  We also tabulate the number of young adults in each geographic/race category by educational attainment, focusing on the top and bottom of the educational spectrum (those with a high school diploma or less, and those with a four-year degree or more). To get a sense of long term changes, we compare data from the 1980 Decennial Census of population with the most recent five-year tabulation of data from the American Community Survey, covering the years 2013 to 2017 (which we’ll identify using the mid-year of the sample, 2015).  So think of this analysis showing the generational change in residential location over a 35 year period, from 1980 to 2015.

Here’s the data:

Share of 25-34 Year Olds Living in Central Cities of Metropolitan Areas, 1980 and 2015
1980 2015 Change, 1980-2015
Black White Black White Black White
HS or Less 72.1% 33.3% 52.6% 25.3% -19.5% -8.0%
4 Year or More 65.0% 35.0% 47.6% 41.2% -17.3% 6.2%
Ratio -10% 5% -9% 63%

This table shows the fraction of 25 to 34 year olds who lived in the central city of a metropolitan area by race and education level in 1980 and 2015. The two right hand columns of the table show the change in the share, in percentage points, for each race/education group between 1980 and 2015. The bottom row of the table shows the ratio of the share of college educated 25 to 34 year olds living in central cities compared to the share of high school educated 25 to 34 year olds living in central cities for each year and race.

They show a couple of things, right off:  Squarely fitting our stereotypes in both 1980 and 2015 black young adults were more likely to live in central cities than their white counterparts.  In 1980, about two-thirds of black 25-34 year olds lived in central cities, in 2015, roughly half did so.  About a third of white young adults lived in cities in 1980.

Second, consistent with the findings reported by The New York Times, black young adults are much more likely to live in suburbs now than in 1980.  Roughly two-thirds of black young adults lived in central cities in 1980; by 2015, young black adults were about evenly split between central cities and their suburbs.

Third, the pattern for white young adults is mixed, and varies dramatically by educational level. White young adults with a just a high school diploma or less education were less likely to live in the central city (share down 8 percentage points) and more likely to live in the suburbs in 2015 compared to 1980.  On the other hand, white young adults with at least a four year college degree were more likely to live in center cities (share up 6 percentage points).

Finally, and most interestingly, there is a sharp contrast between locations of well educated young blacks and whites.  Relative to their less well-educated peers, blacks with at least a four-year degree are slightly more likely to live in suburbs (about 10 percent more likely–53 percent vs. 48 percent).  In contrast, well-educated young white adults are about 60 percent more likely to live in center cities (41 percent vs. 25 percent) than their less well-educated peers.

What this seems to signal is that–as Pete Saunders argues– suburbanization is still aspirational for young black adults, and that it is not for white young adults.  Better educated white young adults are dramatically more likely to live in central cities than less educated peers; Better educated black young adults are somewhat more likely to live in suburbs than their less educated peers.  There’s a sharp divergence in trend by race among well-educated young adults, over time; well educated white young adults are becoming more likely to live in central cities; well-educated young black adults are more likely to live in suburbs.

The varied racial pattern of urban location by education has important implications for understanding neighborhood change. In part, it fits with a stereotypical view of gentrification, fueled by well educated young whites. But it also shows that young black adults, especially better educated ones, are moving to the suburbs. As David Rusk has pointed out, the suburbanization of the most successful black households has contributed to the growing economic polarization of black neighborhoods.