BY SAMUEL J. ABRAMS
As a college professor who teaches courses about politics and geography at an extremely progressive liberal arts college, my students regularly want to talk about the narratives surrounding deep urban-rural divides which routinely make the news or the seemingly endless stories abound about urban renewal and its proclivity for innovation and how rich urban social life can be.
However, no one wants to discuss the state of America’s suburbs let alone talk about living in them one day. My students often see life in suburbia as a social dead-end filled with Republicans, a place of economic stagnation, and embrace historian Kenneth Jackson’s famous line in Crabgrass Frontier that, “There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon.”
Sadly, my students’ impressions of suburban life are often incorrect. Not only have many studies have revealed that America’s suburbs are areas of continued demographic growth notably among younger generations of Americans along with economic opportunity, but new data from AEI’s Survey on Community and Society shows that suburbs are also politically diverse places where younger Americans report having vibrant social lives and dynamic economic opportunities.
The data shows that nationally, 21% of suburbanites maintain that they are extremely or very liberal and a 16% are very or extremely conservative – a difference but only 5 points and collectively just 37% of the population. In contrast, 22% lean a bit ideologically, 30% identify as moderate and another 12% hold that they really have not given the very idea of ideology much thought. Thus, 63% of those in suburbs are not on the politically ideological extreme and this explains why so many suburban areas are now being thought of as being in play and competitive in the upcoming election cycle.
Age plays little role in these national numbers because the ideological breakdown older and younger generations in the suburbs look similar. Twenty-four percent of 18-29 year olds in the suburbs declare themselves liberal with 9% conservative and the 67% balance in the middle or disconnected. As for older Americans who are 60 and older, 14% are liberal and 20% are conservative – but these differences are dwarfed by the 66% who are not on the extremes. Clearly, the suburbs are up for grabs politically; they are not political mono-cultures whatsoever.
Despite these strong findings, some may argue that such aggregate figures are misleading because these data ignore regional political and social histories such Colin Woodard’s 11 region typology and even the 9 regions employed by the Census Bureau and places like New England are going to be very liberal compared to the conservative South.
It turns out that regional differences are minor as well when the ideology of suburbs are considered. Some suburban areas may lean left or right more than others, but the plurality of Americans in suburbs continue to ideologically cluster in the middle in their respective regions. For instance, a quarter of those in the Pacific suburbs are on the left compared to just 8% on the right with 46% clustering in the center. The Mid-Atlantic region is the most liberal region with a third being liberal compared to just over ten-percent identifying as conservative but another third are in the center. In contrast, the most conservative area is the East South Central region which includes Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama and 37% of residents there identify as conservative compared to just 11% liberal. However, 47% are in the middle , providing strong evidence that these suburban areas are far more moderate than widely believed. Of course, one could find an area or two that may appear monolithic, but that is anything but the norm.
Going further, despite my students thinking that suburbs are unpleasant, boring places to live, young and old Americans like suburbs and rank the quality of life in suburbs more positively than other spatial forms.
The new survey data reveals that 87% of Americans rate their suburban areas are good or excellent places to live compared to the mid-70 range for urban and rural areas. When various age groups are considered, it is still the case that the suburbs are overwhelmingly appreciated by all cohorts. 85% of those between 18-29 rate their suburban community as a good or excellent place to live and those 30 through 44 – when families and children are most often central to lives – that figure climbs only a bit to 86%. Those who are 60 or older are the most positive on suburban lifestyles at 92% but the empirical trend is clear here: Americans like the suburbs.
Thinking about the question of how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way things are going in your local community today, Americans again like the suburbs. Sixty-five percent of Americans are satisfied in urban areas but that figure climbs significantly to 81% for those in suburban areas. When those under 30 are thrown into the mix, the numbers barely move from the national average. Sixty-six percent of younger urbanites are satisfied with their local communities compared 81% of those in suburban areas. Life does not end outside of central cities.
Turning to employment and the oft stated idea that cities are the primary engine of innovation and economic expansion, the data reveals that suburbs are booming and that attitudes toward one’s finances and careers are as positive in the suburbs as the inner cities among younger Americans.
Today, 86% of under 30 urbanites believe that they will be better off or about the same financially in a year from now and this figure increases to 93% when you leave the city environs for the suburbs.
When asked about career prospects locally, 23% of younger Americans report that there are plenty of good jobs available and another 66% state that there are some or a few good jobs available in the big city. For the suburbs, the numbers look slightly better. 28% report that there are plenty of good jobs available and another 66% believe that there are some or a few good jobs available . This calls into question misguided statements about living having to live in cities to succeed.
Finally, the data reveals that younger Americans feels as connected to their neighbors in big cities as they are in suburbs. In large cities, 45% of those under 30 know their neighbors fairly or very well compared to 46% of those living in suburbs.
Social discourse with one’s neighbors among younger Americans runs higher in the suburbs as well: 34% of young urbanites talk weekly and 73% a few times a month or more. In the suburbs, which are often thought of as isolating and lonely places, 42% talk weekly or more with their neighbors and 68% talk monthly or more.
The data also reveal that these relations run deeper than just knowing those that live nearby. Two-thirds of younger Americans are quite willing to help their neighbors with local matters and this figure is the same for urban and suburban areas. Suburban areas additionally lead the way in terms of social trust; 68% of younger Americans believe that they can significantly trust the people in their neighborhoods compared to a lower 56% for those living in urban areas.
Lastly, when asked about feeling in tune with the people around you, 76% of urban and 70% of suburban Americans under-30s report that they feel connected and in tune with those around them. This is hardly a huge difference where many believe that you must be in a dense urban center to be connected to others and the zeitgeist in an area.
The data is very clear; younger Americans are thriving socially and economically in suburbs and these places are not ideologically uniform at all. Younger Americans can move to suburbs for space, air, safety, and convenience and still have meaningful careers, social lives, and live in competitive political districts. While survey data is certainly an imperfect way to measure social connections, employment opportunities, and the political orientation , the new data strongly suggests that life in suburbia today for those under 30 is anything but miserable.
The “good life” has long been a central component of the American Dream and deeply intertwined with the post-war development of American suburbia. While cities can and do offer many socio-economic and political opportunities for younger Americans, suburbs offer incredible opportunities too and students would be well served to keep an open mind as people can and do flourish in many settings well beyond a select few urban centers.