Friday, June 04, 2010

The Suburban Patch: Q&A with Dante Chinni

Dante Chinni is project director of Patchwork Nation, an effort, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor and the Knight Foundation, to understand the United States not as a collection of regional or political entities, but as a set of diverse communities. Looking at the 50 states county by county, Chinni has identified 12 broad community types that share demographic and economic traits, regardless of whether they find themselves in the Southwest or the Northeast, Florida, Washington or Arizona.

One of Chinni’s dozen communities is the “Monied Burb.” We had a conversation with him about how he defines suburbia and what he’s found there.

One of the dozen or so community types in Patchwork Nation is the Monied Burb. What makes a county a Monied Burb?
All the types in Patchwork Nation are identified by clustering the counties around a sets of demographic data: income and occupation, religious adherence and racial breakdown, consumer information. For the Monied Burbs, the markers that stand out are income and education. They aren’t terribly diverse places, though they aren’t far off the national averages in their proportion of different kinds of people. And they are not as dense as the big-city counties we call Industrial Metropolis.

How many communities like this are there among the country’s 3,142 counties?
There are 286 of them, and they contain about 69 million people. Mostly they are scattered around big cities, but some are just sprawling counties that cover a medium- or small-sized city and it's burbs.

Obviously, not all burbs are monied.
Not all burbs are monied, but the counties just outside of big cities tend to be wealthier than average than the county the city is in. And there are clearly some suburbanites we miss, in the inner ring burbs in Industrial counties and outer ring burbs in the Boom Towns.

Where did you grow up?
Macomb County, Michigan, and it makes for a good example of why we call them Monied Burbs. The part of Macomb County I grew up in was not Monied, but Macomb stretches very far north from Detroit, and ther are some higher incomes and bigger houses out there. Also, keep in mind that we tend as Americans not to consider ourselves, our environment, well-off. So we look at the town next door and say, "We're okay here, but over there, they are rich ones." Well, yes and no. When you compare your suburb not to the richer one next door but to the statistical "average county," you'd be surprised how well most burbs are doing.

These days you’re looking at how your communities are faring in the recession, and what they've gotten out of federal bailout funds. How are suburban communities doing by these measures?
Last time we looked, on a per capita basis, the Burbs were pretty far down the list -- about $848 per head through January. Seven of the 12 community types did better than that. The big city Industrial Metros scored almost $1200 per head.

But we also looked at where the TARP funds went, which is the bailout. The Burbs scored very highly there. About half of the bank branches in the burbs were affiliated with TARP banks. Those places also took more advantage of government aid to those who lost their homes. So one can't simply say the Burbs didn't get their fair share.

In a recent post on PN, you say that the soccer moms and soccer dads, which are really just euphemisms for the suburban majority, are not on the deciders this election season. What changed?
We'll have to see, of course, but when I look at the numbers—Obama’s approval and anxiety about the economy--the Burbs aren't especially unhappy. The stock market is up. Their 401(k)s look a lot better. They've been teetering between Dems and Republicans for several elections, but fell heavily to Obama in 2008.

I suspect the Republicans will do better in the Monied Burbs in 2010 than they did two years ago, but because those places feel a little better than they did in 2008, they are likely to stay Democratic. Other types, like the Boom Towns and the small own Service Worker Centers, lean Republican and they have a little more to be unhappy about. Of course if Europe collapses and drags the Dow down with it, all bets are off.


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