Last December, the U.S. Bureau of the Census presented us with an exceptional Christmas gift: the first annual edition of the American Community Survey’s (ACS) tracking of economic and demographic trends in communities numbering fewer than 20,000 people. Until now, every ten years roughly a sixth of the population filled out a long questionnaire about jobs, commuting, education, ethnicity, housing, etc., and the huge size of the sample produced rock-solid information. Still, by 2006, information collected in 2000 gets long in the tooth.
The Bureau’s solution was monthly surveys asking similar questions. For cities numbering 65,000 people or more, this works. Over 12 months you’ve sampled enough people to generate a reliable annual update. For places numbering 20,000 to 64,999 people, it takes 36 months’ worth of monthly surveys to get solid info. It’s another kettle of fish for towns like Gardiner. It took from 2005 through 2009 to build up the first reliable ACS sample for small town America, and the world turned upside down smack in the middle of that. Rolling averages for things like ethnicity or family structure worked out nicely, but for matters like unemployment or real estate prices, what does an average of boom years preceding, and bust years following, the Great Recession really mean?
Real estate prices or unemployment claims can be tapped for important characteristics that are sensitive to business cycle fluctuations, so a substantial majority of experts strongly preferred staying with the huge decennial Census and its solid reliability on the nuances of social and economic reality in small places. Nevertheless, the American Community Survey is the game that’s in town now, and we should use its many good features.
A paradox emerges from the new data; Gardiner’s median family income of $89,915 is considerably higher than Ulster County’s $69,364, Orange County’s $81,435 or Dutchess County’s $82,730, and a quite high 45% of Gardiner’s labor force works in managerial or professional occupations, compared to 38% for Ulster and 39% for Dutchess. 20% of Gardiner residents have advanced university degrees too, compared to 13% in Ulster and Dutchess Counties combined. Yet this prosperity co-exists with nine percent of our children living below the poverty line, and I’m sadly confident that the real, higher rate of child poverty in Gardiner would show up if we measured incomes for recent months rather than five years. Though our rate of child poverty is lower than the 19% for Orange and 10% for Dutchess, nearly one out of ten children in poverty in a generally prosperous place like Gardiner is nothing to be proud of.
To briefly summarize a few other statistics … we’re quite mobile, with 18% indicating a change of houses between 2005 and 2009 (most moving from other parts of New York State, usually nearby, but still enough residential churning about to create a challenge to building community cohesion). Racially, it bears stating the obvious: Gardiner is a very white place, with 93% Caucasians, compared to an 80% national average, not to mention New York State’s 67%. Curious, because I think Gardiner is a racially tolerant town. Commuting patterns suggest predominantly local labor markets―average commuting time is 27 minutes, though a high 44% of Gardiner’s labor force commutes to jobs outside their resident county (probably reflecting our proximity to the Orange County border).
The American community Survey is a fine resource, and the Census Bureau is exemplary in reaching out to share this rich resource with the public. I’ve only been able to cite a few insights from the ACS data. Enough, I hope, to get you to dig in on your own. Visit www.census.gov/acs/www/ or head over to the Gardiner Library to print out the section on Gardiner.