Census Bureau Survey Indicates How Americans Live Steve Inskeep talks to demographer William Frey, of the Brookings Institution, about new trends in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. It's an annual snapshot into the lives of Americans. The data helps communities plan investments and services.

Census Bureau Survey Indicates How Americans Live

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep with some new information about us. The Census Bureau conducts the American Community Survey every year. It's an annual snapshot of who Americans are and how we live, and it's kind of like Christmas morning for demographers such as William Frey of the Brookings Institution. We asked him what trends he sees this year.

WILLIAM FREY: Of course what everybody is trying to get their hands around, is the country coming back from the recession and the prolonged unemployment levels that we've had? And the nice thing about the American Community Survey is it gives you lots of different indicators, not just income and poverty, but stuff about migration and fertility and homeownership and education and all these kinds of things.

And when I've looked at the last six years, including this new data point, I think that on many of these indicators we have either bottomed out or are close to bottoming out of the kind of bad news story that we've been hit with over the last several years.

INSKEEP: So when you look at that then, what are the things that you learn from the American Community Survey that we would not learn just from knowing that the unemployment rate has gradually been going down, for example?

FREY: Migration, which has been on a steady downturn over the last several years, at least in terms of moving across states and moving across counties - long distance migration that's linked to jobs - that freefall is starting to turn around.

INSKEEP: What are some other indicators that you like?

FREY: Well, fertility - this downturn in fertility seems to have bottomed out and maybe people are thinking about having families that may not have. One big one is immigration. There's an uptick in immigration. Now, last year we'd had the lowest level of immigration in quite a while. And it's not up to the heydays where we were getting a million people a year coming in. It's still less than a half a million.

But it's up a little bit. And what's interesting about immigration is that it's Asians that are driving what's going on in our gains in immigration. The two biggest immigrant countries with these new data are India and China. Hispanics only a very small gain, and in fact there is a net outmigration to Mexico. From other parts of Latin America, though, there is an in-migration.

INSKEEP: Wow. So many layers to what you just said. First, of course, immigration tends to be driven by economic factors. So the fact that immigration dropped off was an indicator of a really weak job market in the United States. The fact that things may be moving in a new direction indicate to you that the labor market might be improving once again.

Now, how could that be linked to that ethnic or racial division with Hispanic migration still way down and Asian migration increasing? Does that suggest different jobs being filled or unfilled? Does that suggest different classes of people? What's going on there?

FREY: Yeah. Well, a big part of the Hispanic migration downturn is from Mexico and we know that there's been a lot of migration back and forth to Mexico as the low skilled job market has gone up and down over time. And so I think that gives us a signal that those construction jobs, those retail jobs, those service jobs that a lot of people came over from Mexico to take still are not picking up. And I think that's an important part of what's going on.

But the Asian immigration - we know a lot of Asians - not all Asians, but many of them come here for graduate school, for college. Many of them come here to take jobs that are high skilled jobs and of course bring their relatives with them.

INSKEEP: Are immigrants as a group better educated than they used to be?

FREY: They've always been better educated than people think they are.


FREY: And I think that's improving. If you looked at the last year's immigration to the U.S., it's much higher for people with college degrees or more education, which goes against some stereotypes that people have had.

INSKEEP: Also suggests that people who have the most choices in the world - and I'm assuming that high education is a signal that you may have some money in your own country, that you have some marketable skills - people who have a choice seem to be choosing the United States

FREY: Yes. I think that's correct. I don't think we're ever going to have a problem with having people with good skills and wealthy backgrounds not wanting to come to the United States. That's always been part of our history. I think we can count on that in the future.

INSKEEP: William Frey of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Thanks very much.

FREY: Sure. I enjoyed it.

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