Neighborhood Demographics Affect Housing and Services

empty playground climbing equipment

Neighborhood demographics are the data describing population characteristics of the folks that live in your community. Typically such numbers are important for grant applications, long-range planning, market research for businesses, trend analysis over time, and comparisons of places.

It's a shame to spend good money on an empty playground, as seen on this page and in many  neighborhoods.

So it's appropriate for you community leaders to understand something about who lives in the community, whether your setting is suburban, urban, or rural. Knowing the total population may be interesting, but more and more providers of goods and services want more detailed information.

Whether or not your community takes action, people age. So your subdivision or neighborhood that's full of kids right now is going to fall silent in about 15 years unless you keep bringing in new residents.

It's not necessarily disastrous to have no children around, but it highlights different community needs if your schools are virtually empty but you don't have a senior center yet.

Beyond this practical example, demographic data can be hugely important in framing your argument for systematic changes in racial equity and community development, concentrated poverty, environmental justice, and group disparities in health outcomes.

Where to Obtain Neighborhood Demographics Data

In general, the major source of neighborhood demographics information for the U.S. is the Census Bureau. The results of the 2010 Census are available on-line.

You can make comparisons with the 2000 Census, which is a significant exercise in understanding neighborhood change.

In 2017,  the Census numbers may or may not be still pretty reliable for your community.  If you know your population or population characteristics to be changing significantly, you will need to take those 2010 results with a grain of salt.  Depending on your purpose, it may be worth the effort to make estimates of the changes.  For instance, if you had a significant employer added or subtracted, you can make some assumptions based on the jobs per person, or person over 18, in 2010 or the latest year for which statistics are available.   

Other countries will have a government office that collects population information and estimates. The United Nations does so internationally.

Nonprofit groups sometimes package Census data in particular ways to enable organizations, advocates, and foundations to tell a story. An example is the rich Kids Count compilation by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Private businesses also collect, package, and sell information that is particularly relevant to other businesses. If you need specialized information, sometimes categorized into groups with cute names, it may be worthwhile to pay for that information.

But most community groups should start with the basic government sources and purchase neighborhood demographics information only if they have a very particular and targeted need.

If you live in a city or town large enough to have a planning department office, make that your first stop if you need help. Not only will they be familiar with how to find the neighborhood demographics data you want, but also they also could help you make generalizations and interpretations about it.

If there's no planning department, a public library is another possible source. If you have an extension agent, they should be able to assist you both with finding and understanding data as well.

What to Expect from Census Data

There are many places online  to find the latest information. The Census Bureau not only allows you to view data, but also provides a number of opportunities to create specific tables showing only the neighborhood demographics you want for the geographies you want.

The American Fact Finder and Current Population Survey parts of their website are particularly useful in this regard.

The American Community Survey of the Census Bureau provides annual population estimates for areas of 65,000 population or more. The American Community Survey also replaced the "long form" of the Census with detailed periodic surveys not necessarily geared to the 10-year cycle.

The Census Bureau annually estimates births, deaths, and migration into and out of states and counties. These become important when you want to compare your own neighborhood demographics with those larger areas to see how to evaluate your own numbers.

For privacy reasons the Census Bureau often suppresses particular neighborhood demographics that may be of interest to your group, especially at the block level. You'll find it impossible to calculate exactly how much money your next door neighbor makes, for instance.

But you can learn many patterns about age, sex, who's moving into your neighborhood, income, housing age, household composition, and race and ethnic background.

Census Bureau procedures have changed considerably over the last 20 years, so if you had been familiar with the old paper reports, you might have to update yourself on the sophisticated new web-based material and its limitations.

The American Housing Survey now is updated every odd year on a national basis and recently has been providing detailed metro area information every four or five years.

Is the Census Accurate?

Many people question the accuracy of the Census, citing personal examples or anecdotes about deliberate deceptions, especially by people who are in the country illegally or ethnic groups suspicious of government, or accidental undercounts or other errors. In truth, in many neighborhoods the Census is very accurate. There is always a local census review committee in a community of any size, and an effective committee can improve the quality of the information.

If you are particularly interested in minority and low-income communities, many advocates will argue that these are the folks who are undercounted in the Census. Extreme mobility, homelessness, and fear of the immigration agents also may cause undercounting or inaccuracies in your neighborhood demographics.

A bit of rebelliousness on the part of libertarian or conservative folks in not returning their Census forms, no matter how often they are asked to do so, probably is not affecting results much in most locations.

I think it's fair to say that the Census Bureau is somewhat in flux right now, as they adapt admirably in many instances to the electronic revolution. But skyrocketing costs of manual data collection and increasing resistance to compliance have challenged their traditional ways of collecting data.

Other Sources of Demographic Data

You also can collect your own useful information, you know, as detailed on the neighborhood planning page.

Annual population estimates or other neighborhood demographics in smaller towns and cities often must be estimated using local school, utility, and housing move-in information that can be obtained sometimes from utilities or from occupancy permits, if you use such a thing.

The Internal Revenue Service charges for its data, but my experience was that it was well worth it when we were tracking movements of households into and out of counties within a metropolitan area.

For a fee, the IRS also provides information on estimated number of households and persons in a zip code. This is an alternative to the Census Bureau when the Census data, collected in the U.S. every 10 years, is getting old.

The Office of Immigration Services in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security tracks immigration data. For income-related and employment data, the authority is the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a division of the Census Bureau.

Use of this information in detail to determine your areas's economic base is described on economic base and location quotient pages.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates metro area median incomes to determine some of its housing program income requirements. The Social Security Administration tracks income for the self-employed. And the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has some great chart-making and map-making capabilities for those in more rural areas. The Federal Reserve collects data on housing finance. On and on it goes.

A very important check on Census data is the free U.S. Postal Service information on number of households having mail delivery. Comparing their number to the Census number could help you spot any undercount problem you may have had.

You also can determine commuting times (called journey to work), people before the official poverty level, cost of living in various cities including yours, sales prices of houses and rental costs, and computed data, such as housing affordability, which would be a combination of those housing purchase prices, rental costs, and income.

Housing characteristics technically wouldn't be considered part of neighborhood demographics, in case you're wondering. But most groups use the same information sources on housing at about the same time they are studying neighborhood demographics. So we mention the housing data for your convenience. Your local real estate board may or may not be helpful in providing information on housing values, characteristics, and trends, but if not, a sympathetic real estate agent active in your neighborhood may be able to do some research for you.

Straying even further from what is often considered demographics, we believe that you have every right to see neighborhood-level crime data and to demand that truthful trends be reported promptly to you, regardless of a city's desire to present itself as crime-free.

You also may find information from talented and careful bloggers or other online media. A developing trend is called hyperlocal media, where trained or untrained journalists may cover an underreported geographic area. Many experiments along these lines are occurring, so keep an eye out for non-traditional investigative reporting. These reports may or may not rise to the level of useful scientific data, but if these media are willing to disclose their methods and assumptions to you, you can evaluate them just as you make judgments about possible defects in well-established sources such as the census.

If your population is active online, you can try Internet-based surveys to determine detailed population characteristics, providing you have a piece or two of hard data to enable you to judge what percentage of people in the neighborhood have returned the survey. You'll find various on-line survey mechanisms that cost little to nothing to use.

To obtain traffic counts, ask the government that controls the road--the state department of transportation for federal or state roads, or a county, municipal, or township organization, depending on who built and owns the road. If you don't know, ask one level of government and they can refer you to the right entity.

Be prepared for the transportation provider not to have the traffic count you want. You can ask them to install a traffic counting device temporarily, but many of them have more requests than they can accommodate.

Even considering all these sources, it's certainly possible that you may not find exactly the information you'd like for exactly the geographic configuration that you need.

What to Do with These Neighborhood Statistics

When I was a municipal planner, the typical experience was that when a neighborhood leader would come to obtain Census tables, they would leave with 20 or 25 pages of material. Then about a week later the panicked phone call would come. The essence would be "but what does this all mean?"


Here are the questions to ask when you have lots of data and not too much experience in "reading" it:

• Over time, is this number going up or down? (Remember when obtaining Census data to try to find comparable data for 10 years earlier, or one year earlier if you’re using annual estimates. Even longer comparisons may be useful to show trends.)

• Compared to my entire city, is my neighborhood higher or lower? By what percentage? What about the comparison of my neighborhood to my entire metropolitan region?

• Compared to my state, is my neighborhood higher or lower? How about the nation?

• If you're looking at block-level data, how do the various blocks in your neighborhood compare to one another? What factors account for this? Are there dormitories, prisons, nursing homes, group homes, or other "out of sight, out of mind" groups living in your community that are skewing the numbers?

• How are we doing on key neighborhood demographics indicators?

Let's list some important factors you might look for:

1. An aging population is important to note for the neighborhood. This gives information not only about the possible needs of current residents, but also about when housing in the neighborhood is likely to begin turning over at a faster rate than is occurring now.

2. Generally a high percentage of home ownership as compared to a high number of renters is a good thing, as owners typically have more emotional investment in the neighborhood.

3. Are the people who moved in during the last 10 years significantly different in any demographic characteristic from the people who have lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years? If so, you know where you're headed.

Determine if you like that future or not, and what predictions your local business community should be making on the neighborhood demographics trends.

4. Will your housing stock accommodate the size and composition of families that are moving in? Are your houses too big, because now most of your people are "empty nesters"? If so, we predict an exodus next time energy costs spike.

5. Will your school district be thinking of closing schools because there are no little kids? If so, what’s your game plan (temporary or permanent) for school site selection and recycling buildings formerly used as schools?

6. Are wages staying stagnant over the years? If so, what would deferred housing maintenance mean to the community?

7. Are you finding a significant number of children living with the grandparents or with single parents? How is that relevant to programming your local parks department or library?

8. If people are moving away faster than they move in, where are they going? What does that tell you about their incomes, households sizes, tastes in housing, job market, or journey to work?

These are some examples of what you might learn if you get one of the numbers crunchers in your organization to take a look at population, income, and housing characteristics. We wandered a little beyond demographics here and there, but you need to be aware of all these possible measurements.

Correct application of the data is important in deciding the next steps for your neighborhood, or in practical steps such as writing winning community development grant narratives. If you need help in interpreting the data that you see, ask a nearby person affiliated with a university, such as an extension agent. 

If you have a professional or very motivated amateur living in your neighborhood, one source of free historical data based on the U.S. Census is the National Historical Geographic Information System run by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.  They have thought through how to make historical comparisons using Census data. This source requires considerable sifting out of information irrelevant to your neighborhood, but it can be worth it.  Their system also allows linking up to the geographic information system program to produce maps. Check this out if you are producing a neighborhood plan or preparing a grant application for a significant amount of money.

Another interesting tool is using the Google Maps Streetview feature of seeing previous Streetviews. Obviously this will grow in importance as the Streetviews history lengthens.

In the very near future, we see the technological potential to use geolocation data from cell phones, geographic information systems (computerized mapping), sensors mounted on light poles or buildings, and autonomous vehicle usage patterns to support your neighborhood's need to know. The question will be where each culture or each neighborhood will draw the line between privacy and data needs or wishes.

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