Nation's suburbs show increasing diversity, Brookings report finds

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ozzie and Harriet, R.I.P.

The idealized vision of suburbia as a homogenous landscape of prosperity built around the nuclear family took another hit over the past decade, as suburbs became home to more poor people, immigrants, minorities, senior citizens and households with no children, according to a Brookings Institution report to be released Sunday.

Although the suburbs remain a destination of choice for families with children, nuclear families are outnumbered. Nationwide, 21 percent of American families are composed of married couples with children. Their ranks declined in more than half of the suburbs, including those surrounding Washington. Even in fast-growing Loudoun County, only 36 percent of households were married couples with children, census data show. In Fairfax County, it was 27 percent; Montgomery County, 26 percent; and Prince George's County, 18 percent.

Demographers at Brookings say suburbs are developing many of the same problems and attractions that are more typically associated with cities. And cities, in turn, have been drawing more residents who are young and affluent, so the traditional income gap between wealthier suburbs and more diverse cities narrowed slightly.

"The decade brought many cities and suburbs still closer together along a series of social, demographic and economic dimensions," said the report, titled "State of Metropolitan America."

The report offers a preview of the 2010 Census. In fact, much of the report's analysis is based on data collected in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, a detailed questionnaire sent monthly to about 250,000 households that since 2000 has replaced the census's long form. With only 10 questions, one of the shortest forms ever, the 2010 Census will provide a broad overview on the size of the nation, its racial and ethnic makeup, and family composition.

The Washington region is in many ways at the forefront of demographic trends that are playing out across the nation. The report characterizes it as one of nine "next frontier" metro areas in the country exceeding national averages in growth, diversity and education, and the only one east of the Mississippi River.

Its population grew 11 percent over the decade, faster than the national average of 8 percent. The growth rate in the suburbs was 12 percent, double what it was in the urban District, Arlington County and Alexandria. Almost half the population is non-white. And one in five residents was born in a foreign country, up 31 percent.

The region also has advantages over other cities. It boasts the highest level of residents with college degrees, almost 47 percent. That was triple the rate in the metro area with the least, Bakersfield, Calif.

"D.C. is further ahead than most metropolitan areas in where we're heading and where the needs are, in its growth and in its acceptance of a diverse population," said Alan Berube, research director at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and one of the authors of the report. "We're on the front lines in the challenge of how to accommodate all that. We see the price in congestion and quality of life. Maybe Washington can show the way."

The report outlines a decade in which several demographic milestones were passed as the nation's population topped 300 million midway through. About two-thirds of Americans live in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, virtually all regions with populations of 500,000 or more.

"We think we're a small-town nation," Berube said. "But small towns exist because they're connected to something bigger, which allows residents to make a living."

The decade saw increasing diversity in the suburbs, even though they remain two-thirds white overall. For the first time, more African Americans live in suburbs than in core cities, a benchmark that Hispanics and Asians had passed by 2000. In a few cities -- including Washington, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco and Boston -- the percentage of white residents increased. Also for the first time, more than half of all immigrants live in the suburbs.

William H. Frey, a co-author of the report, said the decline in nuclear families in part reflects the aging of the baby-boom generation. Seven of 10 boomers and seniors now live in the suburbs. Frey said suburbs increasingly will have to start providing services for residents who are aging and living alone.

"The suburbs weren't built for people who are over 65," said Audrey Singer, another co-author. "It's where the beginning of the aging wave will hit."

Suburbs already are facing a rising tide of poor residents. Over the past decade, the number of suburban poor increased 25 percent, almost five times faster than the urban poor growth rate. For the first time, suburban poor outnumbered urban poor by 1.5 million. However, suburbanites were far more likely to have incomes just below the poverty line, while residents of cities were more likely to be in deep poverty, with incomes less than half of the poverty level.

In what the report calls a cultural generation gap, the nation's young are racially and ethnically diverse, while the older population is more white. That is particularly noticeable in areas with many Hispanics and Asians. In Los Angeles, for example, barely 20 percent of the children are white, while more than half the people older than 65 are.

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