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March 2010

Oakland County’s future isn’t just black and white

Kurt Metzger (center) stands with a diverse group from Leadership Oakland.

Recently, the Detroit News reported that people were pouring out of Wayne County faster than our of any other county in the United States. Since 2000, the county has lost 135,513 people—a bit more than 23,000 of them left last year alone.   

The same article reported that Oakland County is gaining in population, but it’s not necessarily because people are playing “musical counties.” The truth is that people just aren’t leaving Oakland County in the big numbers that they have been. The reduced out-migration, coupled with the natural increase of births over deaths and immigrants from abroad have all helped keep the county growing.   

But I wonder if Oakland County is ready for the kind of growth that it’s seeing. I had the pleasure of talking to Leadership Oakland about the demographic future of the county, and it unearthed some surprises.   

 In Oakland County’s inner-ring suburbs (Ferndale and Royal Oak), we are seeing more singles and single-sex households. This means the fewer people are having fewer children. (Oakland County’s birth total in 2007 (14,111) was 3,000 fewer than its recent high in 1990 (17,008).  

 Meanwhile, the complexion of the children in Oakland County is changing.   While the total non-White population increased from 15.9 to 19.7 percent, between 2000 and 2008, that for children less than 5 years of age grew from 19.9 to 26.2 percent, respectively.  Ferndale has seen a 53.5 percent increase in students of color since 1991, and there’s been a 36.7 percent increase in Southfield Public Schools which are now 96 percent students of color.[1]  Is Oakland County facing the re-segregation of its public schools?   

Nearly half of all foreign-born residents of Oakland Country arrived here after 1990. That means that the immigrant population is new and growing in the county. There is a high concentration of Asians, with Latinos concentrated in Pontiac and Waterford.[2]    

Meanwhile, the white population in Oakland County is an aging population. Oakland County will double its senior population (65+) over the next 30 years.   

When you look at Oakland County you see some stark trends emerging. The young people are increasingly minority and/or immigrant. The older people are white. Foreign immigration is accounting for a good deal of the growth in Oakland County. (Even in Detroit where the birth rate is down by 50 percent since 1990, the young population is increasingly Latino and/or foreign born.) The public schools are re-segregating. The increase in single-sex families is changing the human needs in the county’s inner-ring cities.   

These changes pose unique opportunities. If the county is able to welcome diversity, it will have the advantage of being able to build a culture aligned with (rather than resisting) the realities of a flattening world. Where the diversity experiment has largely failed in Detroit, it still holds promise in Oakland County, that still may be able to create places where young, mobile, diverse talent will want to live.   

The question is whether Oakland County sees the inevitable changes as a challenge or an opportunity.   

(Future blogs will explore the demographics of the other counties in the region.)   

[1] It should be pointed out that school enrollment data follows the federal guideline for “minority group” designations – African-American, Native American, Asian/PI, Multi-Race and Hispanic/Latino.  Middle Eastern, Chaldean and other ethnic groups are not identified through enrollment data.   

[2] National data show that Asians and Latino have higher fertility rates than non-Hispanic whites.  The fertility rates for recent immigrants, particularly those with lower levels of education and socioeconomic status, is higher.

Men’s memories? Forget about it…


If the professor had been under the age of 50, maybe his story would have been different.

Now that I’m at midlife, sometimes my wife thinks I’m losing my mind. New research from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies suggests that she might be right–at age 50, a woman’s memory is better than a man’s.  A survey of more than 9,600 middle-aged British men and women showed that women outscored men in two listening and recollection tests.  I found a story about the study at the University of London’s website. 

Participants in the first test listened to 10 common words being read out loud and were then given two minutes to recall as many as possible. The second test required them to list the same 10 words about five minutes later. The results: Women scored almost 5% more than men, on average, in the first test, and nearly 8% more in the second.     

Women were less accurate in a third test requiring them to cross out as many “Ps” and “Ws” as possible in a page filled with rows of random letters, though they had scanned the letters faster than men. In a fourth test, naming as many animals as they could in a minute, men and women had identical scores. Each could name 22 animals, on average.     

 The men and women tested were all members of the National Child Development Study, and have been tracked since their births in 1958. They were tested at age 16, and the latest tests will help estimate the impact that exercise, diet, smoking, alcohol and depression have had on mental abilities. Initial analysis shows those who exercised at least once a month did better on all tests, on average, than those who did not. Non-smokers, including ex-smokers, also outscored smokers in the first of the “word recall” tests, even after social background was taken into consideration.
Hey fellas, if you want to keep up with the women after the age of 50, looks like you’d be better off putting down the beers and heading to the gym.

A Poll With Promise: What one study says about our hope for the future

Detroit has become the poster-child for a 21st Century, post-industrial region searching for a future. We are under the microscopes of the media, the federal government, the academic and research communities, national and local foundations, and ordinary residents.  While we don’t always take kindly to what others have to say about us, we need to separate the wheat from the chaff—there is often much to learn from criticism. 

Here’s one poll that contained a welcome surprise. A November 2009 poll was conducted by the ( Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University revealed that “almost all residents of the main three-county metropolitan area of Detroit see their economy as in ruins.”

That’s hardly news, and frankly, feels a little like piling on. But here’s something else the poll found:

“A large majority of residents expect that things will get better, with 63 percent optimistic about the area’s future and the same percentage expecting their finances to improve over the next decade.”

That’s the kind of poll that we cling to around here. Good news is hard to come by. And yet…

How exactly will the region’s outlook improve over the next decade?  The same poll takes a hard look at a critical issue we must face before we can really be optimistic: the divide between Detroit and its suburbs.

The most disturbing finding (see Figure 1) was the fact that half of suburban respondents stated that they never come to the city – primarily because they have no reason to visit or because they fear crime (studies that this author began in 2004 have shown that downtown Detroit is safer than many suburban communities   When asked whether their visits had increased or decreased over the last year, 39 percent reported a decrease, while only 12 percent reported an increase. 

While it is true that the City of Detroit lacks the presence of a regional shopping mall, big box chain stores or multi-screen cinema complexes – all magnets for visitors–where else can you go to match the offerings of the DIA, Detroit Science Center, African-American Museum and Detroit Historical Museum? We know that suburban residents will visit for that occasional sporting event – Tigers, Red Wings or Lions – but do they ever stay to explore Campus Martius, stroll the River Walk, visit the many exciting new restaurants and night spots?  We may not have big boxes, but we have a number of unique venues that should be visited – Avalon Bakery, Bureau of Urban Living, City Bird, Detroit Artists Market, and many others.  And, rather than taking the expressway in and out of the city, why not take a little time to explore the unique neighborhoods that Detroit provides – from Corktown to Morningside; from Palmer Woods to Indian Village; from Woodbridge to East English Village; from Rosedale Park to Lafayette Park; and many, many more.

The evidence is overwhelming –a successful region requires a successful central city. Those areas that are growing economically across the country have shared regional visions that are structured around cities that are attractive to all segments of the population.  They are regions that, through successful public transportation and planning, have strong central business districts and facilitate the movement of city residents to employment in the suburbs, and vice versa.  How will we be able to develop a shared vision around Detroit when so many people are unconvinced that Detroit matters?

City/Suburb Divide

It is only through increased interaction that we can begin to break down the barriers – racial, socioeconomic and geographic – that have held us back for so long.

We need your thoughts.  How do we encourage increased cross-boundary traffic?


When it comes to a healthy start for all children in Detroit, I don’t want to talk about teens or unwed mothers. I want to talk about babies starting out life with a real disadvantage–and what we’re going to do about it.  

This month, Data Driven Detroit released a ground-breaking study –“Right Start in Detroit 2009: Maternal and Infant Well-Being in the City of Detroit, 2000-2007.” We worked with the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion to look at birth statistics by neighborhood–something that has never been done before in the city. What we found is that maternal and infant well-being varies vastly from neighborhood to neighborhood.

In Palmer Woods, only 10 percent of births are to teen mothers. In the Winterhalter subcommunity, nearly one in three babies is born to a teenager. The Vernor and Chadsey-Condon subcommunities have the highest shares of mothers without high school diplomas. And despite an overall decrease in the Detroit birth rate between 2000 and 2007, the Chadsey-Condon and Jeffries subcommunities have both registered an increase in the same period.

Our study really shows that place matters. Where you live can affect how you start out in life, and it can profoundly affect your ability to thrive for years to come. 

Getting public policy off to a Right Start 

The policy implications are clear. We would be smart to target our thinly-stretched resources directly at the problem we are trying to address.If five communities have 24 percent or more births to teens–Osborn (24 percent), St. Jean (25 percent), Conner (25 percent), Burbank (26 percent) and Winterhalter (27 percent)-then perhaps those communities should be getting the lion’s share of our prevention, education and maternal health care services. That’s why good, accurate research is key to developing effective public policy that makes real change to the lives of those who live in Detroit. 

Which brings me to my second point. One study is not enough to answer critical questions about mother-child outcomes in Detroit. We know that in the Conner subcommunity, nearly half of the infants received inadequate prenatal care. What the study does not reveal is why. Is there a lack of health care institutions in the area? Do the mothers lack health insurance? Is there a cultural mistrust of doctors? Are there language or educational barriers? Are cigarettes and liquor more available in the community than fresh fruits and vegetables? 

Data Driven Detroit’s report has been well-received in the media. It’s my hope that it’s not only a “Right Start” for the mothers and children in Detroit, but it marks a right start for the use of data to inform public policy as well.  To find out the results for your neighborhood, click on the links below:

Belle Isle  
Harmony Village  
Palmer Park  
Rosa Parks  
Rosedale Park  
St Jean  
State Fair-Nolan  

Fat Chance: The numbers bear out the First Lady’s call for fitness

First Lady Michelle Obama targets childhood obesity


I’m a data guru, not a diet expert. But since First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” initiative to address childhood obesity, I decided to see what the numbers have to say about America’s fitness. I looked into my crystal ball, which, for us data geeks, is the Statistical Abstract of the United States. It’s been published annually since 1878, and is chock full of information, ranging from “accidents” to “zinc.” 

What I found was tons of information about how our nation tips the scales: 

  • Out of our total population of Americans 18 years and over, 32.9%  are overweight  and 32.6% are obese
  • 60% of 18-44 year olds are above a healthy weight (30.3% obese)
  • 73% of 45-64 year olds are above a healthy weight (38.4% obese)
  • 74% of 65-74 year olds are above a healthy weight (34.8% obese)
  • White females are the only race/ethnic/gender group to have an unhealthy weight below 70% 

You can’t turn on the TV without seeing an ad for a weight loss pill, a new foolproof diet or a gadget that makes you lose weight even while eating. But we all know that the main contributors to weight gain or loss are exercise and food intake.  How do we shape up when it comes to those factors? 

People tend to put themselves in a good light when asked about exercise. Still, when we look at the National Health Interview Survey, there’s still a problem. 

  • 39% of all adults report “no leisure time physical activity”
  • 34% (18-44 years); 39% (45-64 years); 48% (65-74 years)
  • Exercise increases as educational attainment increases.  Sixty-four percent of those without a high school degree report “no leisure time physical activity.” Among high school graduates, 47 % report no activity, 35 % of those with some college or an associate degree and 23 % of those with at least an undergraduate degree report no activity. 

If the First Lady wants to end obesity, she’s got her work cut out for her far into the future. Based on responses from high school students in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, only about a third met “currently recommended levels of physical activity.”  However, 25% used computers 3 or more hours a day and 35% watched 3 or more hours of television a day.  When you add phone calls, texting, etc., who has time for exercise? 

Finally, we look at our food intake over the years.  

  • Per capita consumption of red meat has dropped from 126 pounds in 1980 to 111 pounds in 2007
  • Per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks has increased from 33.6 gallons in 1980 to 48.8 gallons  in 2007
  • Per capita consumption of milk has dropped from 27.9 gallons in 1980 to 22.0 gallons in 2007
  • Per capita consumption of cheese has increased from 17.5  pounds in 1980 to 32.7  pounds in 2007
  • Per capita consumption of total fat has increased from 56.9 pounds in 1980 to 84.9 pounds in 2007

 I guess you don’t have to be a Data Guru to see that, unless things change drastically, there’s a fat chance that the overall health of Americans will improve anytime soon.