NO TERM IN AMERICA'S SOCIO-CULTURAL VERNACULAR conveys the idiosyncratic identity, psychic resonance, values, vibrancy and symbolism quite like the term â€œmiddle class.â€? For decades, the pairing of these two words has simply meant everything American â€” from plain vanilla mediocrity to the oppressed majority to the very pulse, indomitable spirit and vitality of the nation's most defining households. About 10 percent of America's population controls 90 percent of its wealth and power. In fact, a great deal of the country's past and present persona and ethos, and, inarguably, a critical key to the nation's future as an economic, political, technological and cultural world leader lies in the health and well-being of its middle class.
Here is the first in a series of analyses American Demographics plans to publish in the next six to nine months under the title â€œAmerica's Money in the Middle.â€? The reports will dissect and drill down into the data, and pan for revelations and insights that can make their way into audience and customer segmentation models, marketing initiatives and models, marketing initiatives and organizational strategies regarding the numbers of America's middle class and what they all mean.
The black middle class represents a significant share of many more markets than in the past, and this has tremendous bearing on the nation's future. The economic boom of the 1990s, the rising professional ranks of African-American Gen Xers and Gen Ys and the dispersion of blacks to growing, prosperous parts of the country â€” including their return to a revived â€œNew Southâ€? â€” have increased both the numbers and visibility of middle-class blacks. Many are located in familiar African-American settlements, both in and outside of the South. Yet the rising prosperity and mobility of African Americans during the 1990s has taken them to new, and sometimes surprising, destinations.
UPSCALE BLACK LOCATIONS
â€œMIDDLE CLASSâ€? IS AN AMBIGUOUS PHRASE, even to those who use it to characterize themselves. It is especially tricky when applying household income as the critical yardstick. The 2000 census reveals that a little more than 4 in 10 American households earn in excess of $50,000 per year â€” an income that reflects middle- class consumption in even the toniest of markets. Because of significant income gains over the past two decades, nationally, nearly 3 in 10 black households have achieved middle- and upper- income status.
The extent to which black households in the â€œmiddle and aboveâ€? income categories cluster into metro areas varies widely. The highest concentrations tend to occur in and around pricey coastal regions in the Northeast and in California, resurgent Southern magnets for middle-class blacks (e.g., Austin, Texas, Atlanta) and emerging magnets for mobile black professionals (e.g., Denver, Phoenix). At the same time, many parts of the country with large settlements of black households, be they Midwest Rust Belt cities (e.g., Cleveland, Milwaukee), or part of the old Southern Black Belt (e.g., Birmingham and Mobile, Ala.), have relatively low shares of higher-income black households.
In four large metro regions, more than half of all black households earn more than $50,000 per year (see chart, â€œHighest Shares of Middle- and High-Income Blacksâ€?). These include Middlesex, N.J., and Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y., home to many commuting New Yorkers, â€œThe Silicon Valleyâ€? (San Jose, Calif.) and Orange County, Calif., â€” home of suburbanizing Los Angelinos. In fact, 10 of the top 13 metros for well-off blacks are located in the greater New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles regions.
Two exceptions are Washington, D.C., a traditional magnet for blacks in government, and Atlanta, a â€œrising starâ€? magnet for black professionals in the 1990s. College towns (Ann Arbor, Mich. Colorado Springs, Colo.), and high-tech economy clusters (e.g., Austin, Texas and Boston) also pop up on the radar. Curiously, despite a vibrant Southern economy, only four of the top 20 metros for middle- and high-income blacks are in the South.
ALTHOUGH THE SOUTH might be underrepresented among markets with the highest shares of middle- class blacks, Dixie metros are prominent when it comes to rapid growth in both black households and incomes. Three Texas metros â€” Austin, San Antonio and Dallas â€” along with Atlanta, lead all others in the growth of black per capita household incomes in the 1990s, among markets that increased their black household populations by more than one-fifth. Other such Southern metros are the Research Triangle hub, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Other high-fliers are places not typically associated with black middle-class populations (see chart, â€œWell-Off and Flying Highâ€?). Western metros such as Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Portland,Ore. and Colorado Springs, Colo. have increased their total population dramatically over the last decade. Today, they are also attracting droves of middle- and high-income blacks. Additional black population spillover into the Pacific Northwest and more â€œsuburbanâ€? interior California metros is being driven by an accelerated out-migration of blacks from large coastal California metros such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose.
One-time Golden State magnets for blacks are now registering declines in African-American households, but at the same time, we're seeing increases in black per capita household incomes in these areas (see Figure 3). This can be credited to the rising cost of living, which drives even middle-class blacks to less pricey destinations in nearby areas and states. These flows into emerging black magnets expand the visibility of middle-class blacks in new Western markets.
ANOTHER EMERGING SEGMENT of middle-income African Americans, â€œknowledge workers,â€? is redefining yet another part of the geographic landscape. This description reflects a significant clustering of black adults who have at least college educations as well as middle-class incomes. This tracks with the greater tendency for Gen X and Gen Y blacks to graduate from college and enter into professional careers. (See Figure 4.)
Leading the list is San Jose, Calif., home of Silicon Valley and haven for software engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and various other knowledge workers (see chart, â€œSmart and Comfortableâ€?). Additional high-tech magnets include Washington, D.C., Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Seattle and Boston. In each of these, at least a fifth of black adults graduated from college, and over a third of black households had incomes exceeding $50,000. These include college towns (Ann Arbor, Mich., and Colorado Springs, Colo.) as well as suburban havens (Orange County, Calif., and Middlesex, N.J.) in places that employ large numbers of well-educated workers.
ANOTHER DEFINITION OF MIDDLE CLASS involves a lifestyle component associated with â€œsettling downâ€? in a stable community, along with a comfortable income. Although Ozzie and Harriet is no longer the norm for American families, and even married- couple households have been on the decline nationwide, almost a third of all African-American households are married couples. The number of black households that represent homeowners is approaching one-half (see Figure 5). As a consequence, a set of metropolitan centers associated with the â€œnesting areaâ€? of black middle class emerges as a definable geographic category. These areas have significant shares of black married couples and homeowners, as well as those with middle-class incomes.
Many of these are â€œsuburbanâ€? metros (see chart, â€œMarried and Settledâ€?) such as Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y., Middlesex, N.J., Vallejo and Riverside, Calif. â€” areas that lie in close proximity to employment hubs for knowledge workers. These communities attract professional blacks who prefer a more suburban settled lifestyle.
What is somewhat surprising is that this list of nesting areas also includes many â€œNew Southâ€? growth centers that have begun to attract professional blacks. The image of their growth is one driven by creative class singles moving into townhouses and lofts near Internet cafÃ©s to become part of the cappuccino culture. Countering this bohemian image are high shares of â€œmarried and settledâ€? blacks who live in fast-growing places like Atlanta, San Antonio, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., and Austin, Texas. Clearly, much of their growth involves blacks moving with spouses and looking for a stable, settled environment.
MIDDLE-CLASS BLACKS and areas that attract them are in a dynamic state. As black Gen Y, and later, Millenial cohorts join the professional ranks, and as African Americans become more mobile, the black middle class will become a larger presence in many more new destinations outside the traditional old South and urban North. Different segments will gravitate to new economic growth centers, university towns and more â€œsuburban-likeâ€? family oriented settings. As more African Americans move up the economic ladder, stereotypes about how and where they live need a new look.
William H. Frey is a demographer and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and on the faculty of the University of Michigan Population Studies Center. His Web site is www.frey-demographer.org .