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Who Lives in the Suburbs?

Friday, May 1, 2020

From Cheryl Russell, Demo Memo

When it comes to identifying where Americans live, there are two different perspectives. One perspective is delineated by the federal government's metropolitan area definitions, where people live in the principal city of a metro area, or outside the principal city but still in the metro area (the suburbs), or in a nonmetropolitan area. The other and perhaps more important perspective is based on feelings. Millions of Americans feel like they live in small cities and towns, according to a Gallup survey, when they actually live in big cities and suburbs, according to metropolitan definitions.

The biggest difference between perception and reality is in the suburbs. The 54% majority of Americans live in the suburbs – in a metropolitan area outside a principal city, according to the government's definition. But only 26% of Americans think they live in the suburbs, finds Gallup.

There's also a difference in perceptions of city living. Fewer Americans say they live in a “big city” than actually live in the principal cities of metropolitan areas. Only 20% think they live in a big city, according to Gallup, but 32% of the U.S. population lives in a principal city – defined as a city with a population of at least 50,000.

Where are the missing city and suburban residents? They're not in rural areas, since the percentage of Americans who say they live in a rural area almost exactly matches the government's nonmetropolitan population estimate – 15% and 14%, respectively. Instead, the missing city and suburban residents live in what they identify as small cities (20%) or towns (16%).

Bottom line: Many Americans feel like they live in smaller, more intimate communities than what is conjured by the terms “principal city” and “suburb.”

Source: Demo Memo analysis of Census Bureau data; and Gallup, Americans Big on Idea of Living in the Country

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