A “shrinking” West: a view from the village

A French parliamentarian walked a circular route (perhaps I should have just said circumambulated, but then nobody would read this blog) for 8 months and over 6,000 kilometers (over 3,700 miles) – according to France24. While the route itself would be fun to map (adding context to the discussion), Z Geography’s main interest are the comments peppered throughout the article. What they suggest to Z is that there is quite a bit of similarities between “the French public” (as France24 portrays in the chose quotes) and some sections of “the American public.” The article left me with the impression that the “declining America” argument/observation/theory could be expanded to encompass the West. Or perhaps make it a Franco-American phenomenon.

What follows is a listing of quote from the article and a short editorialized comment from Z Geography.

  • “Everywhere I went I witnessed a crisis in the standard of living, a loss of identity and the loss of a sense of a common destiny.” How often have we heard in the U.S. about the “war on the Middle Class” (from both Republicans and Democrats)
  • “People would tell me: ‘look at the state you have left our country in’,” he added. “There is no more industry, farming is in crisis, just one in ten children of farmers grudgingly says they want to carry on in agriculture.” Aside from the statistic, there’s nothing I can add. Rust Belt cities. Failing small and medium-sized farming families.
  • “And what he found was a France confused about its position in a shrinking world, an uncertainty as to the long-term effects of globalisation and a distrust for politicians who, people told him, “do not listen to us at all”. This is the key quote. Note the mention of globalization (blamed for everything from illegal immigration to loss of jobs) and the distrust of political leaders.
  • Worryingly, he also encountered “latent racism” almost everywhere, “even in the smallest villages…This is racism that seems totally unashamed,” he told Le Monde on Friday. “It is a wholescale [sic] rejection of ‘the other’ and often expressed with excessive aggression.” Another key quote with applicability to the United States. Pick your (or your party’s) favorite scape-goat. Gays. Illegal immigrants. Government Bureaucrats.

One quote that I found unsettling and woefully underexplained concerned rising “anti-Semitic rhetoric” that was “linked to wealth.” Linked how? As people gain (or lose) money there is a greater likelihood of uttering anti-Semitic comments? More information please!

That information gap aside, the quotes from France apply just as effectively to the United States. Industry has (long) been in decline, agriculture (at least the profits of) is the domain of agribusinesses, those “left behind” by globalization (more specifically: economic globalization) are angry – at the political class, their governments, and the “others.”

The only difference is that a French politician bothered to walk around the country to “take its pulse,” in the first place. The only time this happens in the U.S. is during a Presidential election.

Z Geography thinks these comments point to a more geographically diffuse sentiment. The “forces” that promoted the rapid growth of the Tea Party certainly would have similar effects in France – it’s also an advanced economy with multiple links to the global marketplace. The anger permeating economically-destroyed (let’s face it) communities in “America’s Heartland” is also on display in rural, suburban, and urban France. In other words, this isn’t a strictly American problem (or phenomenon) – it’s regional, probably even global.

Z Geography also thinks that economics plays a central role in this anger, but that is the subject for a much longer post.

Food Insecurity (in the U.S.) Map

I got a box of ConAgra foods today that invites buyers to submit a box code online to fight hunger in the United States.Check out (http://www.childhungerendshere.com/) for more!

Hunger is an interesting subject in Geography. In the United States we often equate hunger with the lack of availability of food. In the U.S. most folks make thousands of dollars a year,  a simple $1,000 year paycheck equates to over $2 a day (which puts you above the usually accepted poverty line of $1 a day and just over the danger threshold of $2 a day). Most Americans make far more money. So in this country, how could folks go hungry? How could folks go hungry anywhere? The typical response is that there’s not enough food.


Its not availability of food. Its access. In fact, in most places even during some historical famines (see Bangladesh famine of 1971 for an instructive case), many people go hungry or starve, when there is plenty of food on the shelves.

I delved into the methodology behind Feeding America’s “Food Insecurity Map” and while I didn’t look deep enough to find the statistical work, the “insecurity” rates shown at the county level is all derived from freely available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor (at the Bureau of Labor Statistics). What the insecurity rates are, it seems, is an index of what Feeding America says are indicators of food insecurity. These indicators include: poverty, unemployment, median income, and other variables which aren’t listed.

I appreciate this approach but it should be pointed out that these numbers are speculative. The maps isn’t the result of an actual survey of individuals, households, and families for their food security. To put it another way, this is one perspective on U.S. food insecurity. There are other assessments out there, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service also publishes an annual assessment of household food security in the United States (see here for 2012). That report also uses U.S. Census Bureau data in addition to an ERS survey. In 2011, Feed America estimated 16.4% of Americans as food insecure (about 50 million people) during the years ERS estimated 14.9% of American households (about 18 million households) were food insecure. Of those 18 million households 6% (almost 7 million households) were very food insecure.

A final note is the definitions of “food insecurity” it always important to know the context. Are there 50 million Americans starving to death in the streets as grocery stores remain full? Obviously not, because you would hear about it. The USDA definition of food insecure is: “Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” Very food insecure households are: “In these households, the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources.”

In a more plain English – food insecure households had trouble providing enough food for everyone at times due to a lack of money. In very food insecure households some members had to skip meals, at times, due to a lack of money. The key points here are 1.) hunger is tied to access, which is primarily gained by “resources”/money, 2.) in the U.S. if you have difficulty at any time with feeding yourself or your household you’re “food insecure.”

What this leaves out of course is the quality of food one does have access to. What if there’s no Whole Foods within 2 miles of apartment? Does this get factored into the food insecurity assessment? What if I make enough to not have to survive on food stamps but between my two jobs and children I find myself dining with my children at a local fast food place? We might not be “hungry” but we’re certainly not “healthy.”

Geography has a role to play in the discussion of hunger, and many Geographers are involved in this conversation. “Access” to food implies much more than economic purchasing power. The word “access” is, after all, an inherently Geographic concept.

Migration and Demography: Impact on Latvian Sovereignty?

The Baltic Times ran an interesting article recently on a speech given by Latvian President Andris Berzins. He gave the speech on March 25 at the Freedom Monument in honor of the victims that were deported to Siberia during Soviet rule in 1949. This interesting bit is that the speech itself partially (at least) concerned Latvian emigration from the country, with the President arguing that if emigration wasn’t checked the Latvia’s independence would be in doubt in 10 years.

The article reports that over 40,000 Latvians were deported from the country by the Soviet authorities between March 25th and 29th, about 2.3% of the country’s population at the time.

The deportations are distinct to emigration in a number of ways, one being the forcibly nature of the activity. While deportations are, strictly speaking, “emigration” (out-migration) they are coerced and usually distinguished with the qualifier “forced migration”. Similar processes are also attributed to refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylees. Each of these persons are “migrants” but of a forced, rather than willed nature. Of course, that brings us to a philosophical debate on how much “free will” one has in the first place. There are indirect coercions, in terms of gentrification, being priced out of your neighborhood or home. Should we consider this type of migration a “forced migration”?

Another difference is the temporal nature. As the article shows, forced deportations can happen quickly (especially with governments without independent judiciaries). In Latvia, 40,000 people (the size of a town) disappeared within one week. Typically, migration data is presented over the course of a year (since its a fairly rare occurrence when viewed through the lens of an entire country). If this 40,000 in a week held as the average for the year (which thankfully it didn’t), over 2,000,000 Latvians would have been banished to Siberia. Note that would have been more than the country’s population at the time (it was between 1.7 and 1.8 million persons).

With this in mind, let’s try to evaluate the respective outflows. The Census Bureau estimates a NET migration of just over -5,000 people. This net number is the total of immigrants minus emigrants. So there’s likely to be a few more total emigrants, to account for the overall negative migration total. However, 5,000 emigrants represents less than 1% of Latvia’s total population of over 2 million people (2013 estimates). Since I’ve already noted that Latvia’s population is currently declining, its useful to add that the natural increase (in this case decrease) of the population is a larger magnitude than the emigration. To give you numbers, the 5,000 (or more) emigrants is a smaller loss compared to the (about) 8,000 people lost due to the death rate being higher than the birth rate. In other words, the disparity in birth/death rates is having a larger impact on population decline than the emigration rate.

By 2025, since the Latvian President mentioned a timeframe of 10 years, the Census estimates that the net migration rate will remain the same (about 5,000 people leaving Latvia that year). However, the magnitude of the natural decrease will grow to over -12,000 persons. The Census then predicts a worsening disparity between births and deaths, driven by an aging Latvian population (where births will fall even lower as there are less young people, and deaths increase since there are more elderly). Despite the population decreasing to about 1.9 million persons, the loss of 5,000 (or so emigrants) is still less than 1% of the total population.

Though emigration is an obvious “problem” in the sense that it contributes to population decline, the main driver is the very low birth rate. Since I’m not sure what Latvia’s President was referring to in terms of loss of independence, from a demographic standpoint, the low birth rate would be the prime suspect if Latvia lost its independence.

From an economic geography standpoint, however, emigration can cause at least three potential problems. First, there is the loss of labor and revenue from Latvia to another country. Latvian and multinational businesses in Latvia would lose out on increased productivity and not to mention potential sales in Latvia. Moreover, Latvia also loses individual taxes. Of course, the loss of potential sales and income taxes is offset if the individual is able to remit money back home (remittances). Remittances are the sending of money (often through the wire or informal networks) from an emigrants location to the home country to support a family or community. In this way, the home community still receives some economic benefit from the lost labor and productivity. But this brings about the second potential problem, Latvia may grow to become increasingly dependent on remittances for economic well-being. Although figures for remittances are difficult to come by (primarily because it can be under-reported or not reported at all), some countries (like Bangladesh, some Central American, and Sub-Saharan African states) are heavily dependent on remittances. If remittances disappear, whether by financial collapse in the emigrant’s country or loss of work or network, the home country will suffer. Finally, emigrants are often able, through themselves or their families, to maintain property in their home communities. Given that they typically earn higher wages abroad, these properties can earn the resentment of non-migrating neighbors or family members who are often contracted (or asked) to look after a place, work it,

By the same token, however, emigration can offer future opportunities for Latvia. I’m not a globalization booster, but if the returning migrants are able to find jobs or create their own (both necessitate Latvia having the economic space to accommodate this) they can bring skills and perspective that may not be available, making the Latvian economy dynamic in the long run.

Then there’s the political geography standpoint. As a well-functioning democracy, I assume that Latvia provides opportunity for Latvian emigrants to cast their vote during elections. Under the independence argument, perhaps the Latvian President is referring to a situation in which the numbers of Latvians abroad can significantly influence the outcome of an election, even though they don’t live, work, or play in Latvia. In the United States, we don’t have to address or think about this problem since the country attracts many more immigrants than it sends away. However in countries with significant numbers of citizens abroad, perhaps they can influence an election?

And finally, there’s the social aspect of sovereignty. Moving changes a person. Move from one town to another and you’ll be exposed to new people, new ways of doing things. Now move to another province, perhaps another region, maybe you’ll notice cultural differences (I certainly did moving from Texas to Washington, D.C.). Now think about moving abroad for years. You might not know the language (or have only a rudimentary knowledge) and you certainly won’t be acculturated. Chances are, also, that you’ll end up living in a city in the new country which is full of people, some of whom are native urbanites, some of whom are from more rural areas, some from different provinces or regions, and some (like you) from another country. Yes, moving changes you. And then maybe you’ll go back.

With a country like the United States, where a relatively small (I assume) proportion of Americans live abroad for extended (read: over 5 years) periods of time and then come back to the United States, the “political” and “social” shift is negligible. But imagine a country like Latvia where between 25,000 and 34,000 people emigrated to Ireland and the United Kingdom between 2004 and 2007 (based on a blogspot post). The 59,000 Latvians represent 2.8% of the 2013 population of 2.1 million. Of course, that includes children and the elderly (those least likely to emigrate for work). The U.S. Census estimates there 1.5 million Latvians between the ages of 15 and 64, making the 25,000 emigres almost 4% of the population. As the blogspot post observes, during the 2006 Ireland Census only 62% of the Latvians that had arrived remained. The rest may have gone to another country for work or returned home.

This post presented a meandering discussion of whether emigration in Latvia could, in the near future, impact that country’s “sovereignty”, as prophesied by the country’s President. As always, the answer depends on the meaning behind the terms. Will Latvia be at the mercy of a foreign power ( Russia ) because of emigration? Unlikely. Emigrants aren’t going to Russia, they’re going to western Europe. Latvia isn’t likely to lose its political and economic independence with a relatively small outflow of about 5,000 people a year (which might be undercounting). While Latvia isn’t at risk of being dominated by “foreign” interests, a growing proportion of Latvians living abroad, or influenced by their time abroad, can certainly have a noticeable political, economic, and social impact – at least in the medium term. Perhaps this is what President Berzins foresees? Perhaps he believes there’s a coming internal conflict (not necessarily violent) between “native” Latvians and returning or emigrated Latvians. The sovereignty issue, then, isn’t about foreign domination its about a (necessary) political debate on the future of the country and how its people interpret their experiences. If we were to identify a “real” threat to Latvian sovereignty, in the traditional sense, it would be demographic aging and low birth rates. Coupled with Latvia’s poor economic situation (compared with Western Europe) and we find that emigration from Latvia for higher wages is a safety valve for the country. Rather than degrading sovereignty, emigration might actually be protecting it.

Visualizing Gentrification: an economic Geography perspective

In my last post, I mapped and discussed gentrification in the District of Columbia from the point of view of race and ethnicity. I showed, to quickly summarize, the prevalence of the “White alone” population group in gentrifying neighborhoods in the mid-Northwest and Capitol Hill. Of course, relying purely on racial/ethnic data is a recipe for disaster and I questioned whether or not gentrification was occurring within older racial/ethnic communities. In this post, I present and discuss this economic geography perspective of gentrification in D.C.

As always, let’s start with the data. As you probably already know, I’m utilizing freely available data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unlike last time, however, I’m operating at a different scale and with different products. Whereas I used the two Decennial Censuses and the block group in the race/ethnicity post, I’m forced to use the 2000 Census and the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) for this one, at the Census Tract level. Apparently, Census didn’t include income questions on the 2010 Census (I wouldn’t know since I never got a Census form) since they had been a part of the ACS since 2008 (or so). In addition, information at the block group level was supposed to be available by 2010 but I searched American FactFinder (…) and couldn’t come up with anything related to income, at the block group level, except for the 2000 Census. So I moved to the Census Tract scale, still effective for community analysis and the data was available from the 2000 Census and 2011 ACS. Sometimes folks you can only analyze what the data gives you… At any rate, I pulled average Median Income across all households in a census tract in 1999 and 2011.

The first graphic below depicts median income by census tract in the District for 2000 and 2011. The images paint a fairly rosy picture overall, between 2000 and 2011 most areas of the District experienced growth in the median income. Particularly dramatic is the far western and northern areas of Northwest and Capitol, which experienced a number of census tracts reaching over $100,000 for median income. Even census tracts in the more economically depressed areas of the southeastern quadrant (particularly across the Anacostia River) experienced income growth moving many areas from below $25,000 a year to between $25,000 and $40,000. Most interesting from the point of gentrification, however, is the mid-Northwest where some census tracts with median incomes between $25 and $40 thousand a year in 1999/2000 were in the $60 to $99 (and higher) category by 2011. Give this some thought, over a little more than ten years the median household income (that is the income earned by the “middle” household when incomes are rank-ordered) increased from say $33 thousand a year to $80 thousand a year. For a bit of description, the average median income in D.C. in 2000 was about $42,000, equivalent to the “yellow category”, with a minimum of $8,000 and a maximum of over $160,000. By 2011, the average median income increased to $66 thousand (equivalent to the “orange category”) with a minimum of $13 thousand and a maximum of over $200,000.

Median Income in D.C., 1999/2011 (via ME!)

Median Income in D.C., 1999/2011 (via ME!)

For the most part, we would expect incomes to increase over time and typically they do, unless there’s a depression or recession (which there is, of course), but there’s inflation as well. While I don’t have the skills to convert the 1999 median income to 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars (which apparently are what the ACS numbers are), I can provide the compound annual growth rate (i.e. the average growth each year from 1999 to 2011) to give an idea of how quickly each median income grew. Keep in mind, this assumes a nice even growth rate between 1999 and 2011, since we all know a recession started about 2008 that the following numbers are this high are telling.

The left-side map below depicts the data holes (the white areas in the right-hand map). They are due to two reasons. First, some census tracts didn’t report any median income (in 1999, 2011, or both). Second, I attempted to account for census tract boundary changes between 1999 and 2010. This is illustrated by the interaction between red lines (2010 Census) and dark grey lines (2000 Census). In most cases, 2000 census tracts were split into two tracts for the 2010 census (population growth being the most logical reason). In two cases, 2000 census tracts were combined in the 2010 census (either population decline or combining two lower populated tracts into one larger tract). The right hand shows the explosive growth in median income for the District’s two primary areas of gentrification, mid-Northwest and Capitol Hill. In these areas, annual growth in median income averaged over 5.0% a year between 1999 and 2011. For comparative purposes, the District wide compound annual growth rate is 3.8% (the medium red category). While most of the strongest growth is occurring in these gentrifying neighborhoods, the other story are the stagnating neighborhoods (experiencing less than 2% growth if any) in the northern areas of Northwest, Northeast, and some areas in Southeast. However, it should be noted that there are also pockets of strong median income growth in Southeast as well. In addition, I’ve also reproduced the earlier map depicting the changes in D.C.’s “White alone” community, for comparative purposes.

CAGR of Median Income, 1999/2011 (via ME!)

CAGR of Median Income, 1999/2011 (via ME!)

Concentration of D.C.'s Whites, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Concentration of D.C.’s White Community, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

In this post, we’ve taken an economic geographic (rather than cultural geographic) view of gentrification in the District of Columbia. Previously, we saw that the Mid-Northwest and Capitol Hill neighborhoods have become more populated by census respondents claiming to be “White alone”, while the District in general lost substantial numbers of “Black alone” claimants. With the data presented in this post, we have solid anecdotal evidence that strong median income growth correlates with increasing numbers of “White alone” residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. In addition, we’ve also seen that while median incomes in the District generally increased between 1999 and 2011 the increases, unsurprisingly, were not evenly distributed geographically. While the strongest growth rates are associated with the gentrifying neighborhoods, large areas of the northern quadrants experienced more stagnated median income growth, while some areas in the Southeast quadrant experienced negative growth over the period.

I believe a worthwhile follow-up post on this will focus on assessing whether or not there is an actual statistically significant correlation between race/ethnicity growth and median income growth. Stay tuned!