Fifty years ago, when he was writing what is still the best account ever of a presidential election campaign, "The Making of the President 1960," Theodore H. White devoted a full chapter to the findings of that year's census. Ever since, reporters have mined the decennial census reports for the insights they provide into the changes in American society.
This week, a preview of the 2010 census becomes available from the Metropolitan Policy Program people at the Brookings Institution. Their report, "State of Metropolitan America," financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, is appropriately subtitled "On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation."
It uses the annually updated data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey to trace the changes between 2000 and 2008 in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Since those now account for two-thirds of the national population and three-quarters of the gross domestic product, this study is a preview of the census findings we will be reading next year.
In the space of this column, I cannot begin to do justice to the richness of this 168-page report. But after a briefing by Bruce Katz, the program director, and several of his colleagues, I can say that we will be discovering a new and different country that will challenge many of our old policy assumptions and political beliefs.
Most of us know that during the past decade, we passed the 300 million mark in population. But few of us likely have reflected on the fact that 83 percent of that growth came from non-whites. Nearly one out of four Americans under 18 have at least one immigrant parent.
Within that growth spurt, there has been increasing diversity, not just along ethnic and racial lines, but on income and education levels. The highs have reached higher; the lows have struggled to keep up.
Cities and suburbs have become more alike. A majority of members of all ethnic and racial groups are now suburbanites. The number of suburban poor grew five times as fast as poor city residents.
At the same time, the metro areas have become more diverse. The study suggests that we have to think about replacing old categories such as the Sun Belt or the Rust Belt with a seven-way categorization of the places where most Americans live depending on overall growth rates, diversity and levels of income and education.
As the report notes, "viewing metropolitan America through this lens offers a more nuanced view of the country and its variable challenges than conventional regional generalizations. The South, for instance, counts at least one member in each of the seven metropolitan categories, as very different demographic destinies confront Atlanta versus Augusta, or Miami versus Palm Bay."
Washington, D.C., for example, is one of only nine metro areas where the decade's population growth, diversity and educational attainment all have exceeded the national average. The other eight are all west of the Mississippi, concentrated in Texas and found also in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California and Washington.
At the other end of the scales are the 18 low-growth, low-diversity, low-educational areas centered on the old industrial cities along the Great Lakes and spreading into the Northeast and the Southeast.
The report suggests that future political conflicts may well develop along the lines of demarcation between the growth areas and those lagging in population. But it also uncovers political struggles between the aging populations, ill-accommodated in many suburbs, and the young populations expanding into those same suburbs.
By focusing separately on national, regional and metropolitan trends, the scholars give policymakers and citizens alike a new way of viewing the country. And the deeper they look, the more surprises the scholars uncover.
The best news is that this is merely the first baseline report, and it will be updated each year. The Web address is www.brookings.edu/metroamerica.