Transient Spin

“A Transient City.” You tend to hear that phrase a lot when people describe Washington. “Everyone Here is from Somewhere Else.” “No One Stays in DC.”

Irritating as it may be, it’s understandable that some people persist in believing this is a city solely made up of interns and politicos who change with the seasons. After all, it’s a large part of our economy and culture. But what really bugs me about these comments is that people tend to make them as if DC were somehow more transient than any other city, or has less native residents. There’s always an assumption of truth in these statements without any data to back them up, other than the lame “Well, I’ve never met a Native Washingtonian, ” or, “Personally, I don’t plan on living here long.”

So I decided to pull some data from the US Census and see how DC compares with other American cities. Obviously I have my own bias in interpreting the results, so draw your own conclusions from this handy little chart I whipped up, and let me know what you think (other than the obvious, “Damn Jenn, you must be bored today!”)…

Three things to keep in mind:

1) Data was pulled from the Social Characteristics section of the US Census from the tables for the cities proper, not for their greater metropolitan areas/city suburbs.

2) DC respondents list their nativity as in their current state of residence – in plain English, that they were born and live in DC. Unfortunately for other cities we don’t have that degree of specificity as the question refers to the “state” of residence. Someone in Chicago answering this question positively could as easily mean they were born in Illinois as in Chicago city proper. So the true nativity number for other cities could be less than listed here.

3) Obviously to really do this justice you’d need to factor in the population comparison between like cities. I’m not that bored today.

Even given these faulty parameters, I still think it’s interesting to make the comparison between some randomly chosen cities. So pop-up the data below and statistically geek out:

8 Comments so far

  1. Doug (unregistered) on August 29th, 2006 @ 5:57 pm

    Funny you should bring this up, we had a thread about it on the list not long ago. No surprise that cities like LA, NY and SF all have a pretty high rate of “imports” (for lack of a better word), but DC is not far behind.

    How common, in this day-and-age of multiple careers, changing relationships, ease of travel…are people born and raised, married with children, etc., in the same town they born in and live out their lives there?

    And why would you want to?

  2. Jenn L (unregistered) on August 29th, 2006 @ 7:37 pm

    Doug, you bring up an interesting point about how uncommon living your whole life in one place really is nowadays. I wonder though, outside of major metropolitan areas, how common it actually is. I would love to find a migrancy study out there about habitation patterns or whatever the heck the term is – to test the theory that we are a more mobile population than ever before.

    My annoyance is with the assumption that DC is by nature a transient town, isolated in this regard from other cities (i.e. that other cities are less transient). What I take away from looking at this chart is that it’s not an isolated case. Miami and SF, for example, have lower resident nativity that could even be less when adjusted for the “state” incongruity. I suspect most cities are closer to the 40% mark when adjusted. Even without adjustment the average is in the 40-50% range. But you don’t hear people say, “Oh, no one stays in SF” or “no one was born in San Diego.” So why that perception of DC?

  3. Doug (unregistered) on August 29th, 2006 @ 8:30 pm

    I ran into this sentiment when I asserted on the list that many of the DC metblog authors were not native. I was swiftly corrected.

    As far as DC in general goes, I think I had that perception because so many people come here to go to school, are attracted to working in the political arena, or other sorts of federal jobs available here. There is also the fact that the district itself is quite small, so you how would you define a non-native? Does Virginia count (and how far south), does Maryland count (and how far north)?

  4. Mike (unregistered) on August 29th, 2006 @ 11:22 pm

    Somewhat related — One thing I think about with DC a lot is that the ratio between the size of the city and the size of the surrounding suburbs is way different than a lot of American cities. DC is dwarfed both in size and population by its suburbs. Fairfax County alone has nearly twice as many residents as DC. Ditto for Montgomery County.

  5. Doug (unregistered) on August 30th, 2006 @ 12:43 am

    Correct me if I’m wrong someone, to the best of my knowledge there are 4-5 million people living in the DC metro area.

  6. Tiff (unregistered) on August 30th, 2006 @ 8:58 am

    What you’re missing is that there are two parts of the assumption about DC being a transient town. Not only do lots of people live here, lots of people then move away. Of course Miami is going to have a large non-native population- people retire to Florida (to say nothing of the large population of Cuban ex-pats). But in Miami, they largely don’t leave again. In DC, every election year, there’s churn, and the level of churn depends on the size of the election. We have a built-in system that turns over a reasonable chunk of the population every couple of years, and that affects the jobs of an even larger chunk.

  7. Jenn L (unregistered) on August 30th, 2006 @ 10:02 am

    Tiff, I agree about the perception having to do with the idea of election year turnover.

    But if you look at the “same residence in 1995” data, DC is at 49.5%. Given a 1996 election year (though granted not a major party turnover, you’d still expect movement), you would expect it to be lower than the average – but the average is 49.7%. Note Miami’s 49.3%. So DC is at a respectable level compared with the other cities (at least in that five year period)…

    Then again, I totally admit to preconceived notion and faulty parameters. You can parse data every which way – I guess that’s what the phrase “lies and damned statistics” is all about! But I hope looking at this makes us think about the nature of cities and our perceptions of them.

  8. Smouie Kablooie (unregistered) on August 31st, 2006 @ 9:51 am

    It’s always been my opinion that the adage “perception is reality” often rings true here in DC. I think that because we are the heart of this great nations political universe – the ebb and flow of elected officials, and their associated staff, tends to generate the perception that DC is a heavily transient city.

    It doesn’t help that when you go out to a downtown bar and strike up a conversation with a stranger, and they find out you grow up here, their response is likely to fall along the lines of “Wow! A native!”

    Ps. I loved your approach to this entry! Are you interested in a job in management consulting?

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