tornado photo
Tornadoes don’t discriminate. Photo by Marsmett Talahassee via Flickr.

The slew of tornadoes that recently hit the midwest nearly destroyed the small Nebraska town of Pilger. Twin tornadoes took out the town’s post office, fire station, and dozens of homes and businesses. Pilger is known for its slogan “The little town too tough to die,” but the devastation caused to this small community of 378 residents has the Omaha Herald looking to rural sociologist Randy Cantrell for answers to the question of this town’s survival. From the Omaha Herald:

Businesses and families in Pilger will decide what’s in their individual best interests, said Randy Cantrell, a rural sociologist at the Rural Futures Institute. Nothing else — including a community’s geographic location or population — matters as much in determining whether a place lives or dies, he said.

Cantrell goes on to argue that the aging population of Pilger is an important variable to consider, saying that almost one-third of the homes damaged in Pilger were owned or occupied by single people over 65. “That probably makes it iffy whether they rebuild or return,’’ he said. Speaking of the whole community, the article summarizes Cantrell:

Residents of all ages have many things to consider, Cantrell said. Among them are the age of their damaged houses, how much of an insurance payout they receive, where other family members reside and whether their jobs remain in town. Businesses pondering their future will consider that if they moved they would be starting over in a new market with no guarantee of success.

The residents of Pilger and nearby towns expressed confidence in the town’s ability to rebuild, citing the successful recovery of another small Nebraska town, Hallam, that was similarly devastated by a tornado in 2004. Given that no factor matters more, the community’s determination to rise from the wreckage may prove that not even a tornado can kill the tough little town.

For more on the sociology of natural disasters, check out this Sociological Images chart detailing how humans cause tornadoes and this SSN brief on how to better respond to natural disasters.

Photo by Nevele Otseog via
Photo by Nevele Otseog via

The shifting ethnic and racial composition of the United States has social scientists and political strategists busy calculating the “new electoral math”. By 2040, Latinos will surpass 30% of the population, while whites will be a minority. A new study from the Pew Research Center suggests this could spell serious trouble for the GOP—children of Latino immigrants are more likely to lean Democrat than their parents.

Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociologist at USC, believes that the data is correct: Latino voters are going blue. She pushes back against the notion that the Latino vote will eventually break toward the Republicans due to “traditional values,” instead arguing that Republican policies like Arizona’s controversial SB1070 will continue to drive Latino voters to the left. She puts it bluntly:

Latinos are presently not attracted to the Republican party and there is no reason to think that Latinos will become Republicans just because a few Republicans support immigration reform.

Immigration reform figured prominently in both President Obama’s State of the Union address and Senator Marco Rubio’s GOP response. As the debate heats up in Congress, the increasing voting power of Latinos will certainly factor into how both major parties draw up their positions.

Beach at Agios Giorgis

In 1976, a Greek veteran who had immigrated to the United States was diagnosed with lung cancer and given nine months to live.  Facing death, he decided to return to his native Greek island, Ikaria.  There, he prepared to die.  But, after a few months, he starting feeling better.  In fact, today, three-and-a-half decades later, he’s still alive.

This story, remarkable in its own right, isn’t the only one of its kind.  The island of Ikaria is being studied by several demographers who are investigating the places in the world where people live longer.  Dan Buettner, who travels the globe in an effort to better understand longevity, recently explained in the New York Times that he, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy, and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer, work together to study these “blue zones.”

Starting in 2002, we identified three other populations around the world where people live measurably longer lives than everyone else. The world’s longest lived women are found on the island of Okinawa. On Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, we discovered a population of 100,000 mestizos with a lower than normal rate of middleage mortality. And in Loma Linda, Calif., we identified a population of Seventhday Adventists in which most of the adherents’ life expectancy exceeded the American average by about a decade.

These researchers had their work cut out for them.  Tracking down the ages of people, especially those who didn’t have birth certificates, proved difficult to say the least.  “One year they were 80; a few months later they were 82. Pretty soon they claimed to be 100.”  It’s easy to lose track.

Once they were assured that these blue zones were real, they turned to studying their ways of life.  Buettner spent time learning more about the Greek Island of Ikaria, which you can read here.  As he details, their diets are important, consisting of much olive oil and wild greens, low amounts of dairy (except goat’s milk) and meat products, and moderate amounts of alcohol.   But, communal lifestyle also seems to matter.  Ikaria is a communal place—an “us place,” not a “me place.”  As a resident told Buettner,

 “Do you know there’s no word in Greek for privacy?…When everyone knows everyone else’s business, you get a feeling of connection and security…If your kids misbehave, your neighbor has no problem disciplining them. There is less crime, not because of good policing, but because of the risk of shaming the family. You asked me about food, and yes, we do eat better here than in America. But it’s more about how we eat.Even if it’s your lunch break from work, you relax and enjoy your meal. You enjoy the company of whoever you are with. Food here is always enjoyed in combination with conversation.”

In fact, social structure might be one of the most important reasons behind their (and other Blue Zones’) secrets to longevity.  Beyond community, the centenarians in these locations often live engaging lives together, which gives them meaning.  As the Nicoyans in Costa Rica like to put it, they have a “plan de vida,” or a lifelong sense of purpose.

Our love is here to stay
Photo by Tommie Milacci via

Younger generations aren’t the only ones cohabiting these days. Research by sociologist Susan Brown and her colleagues at Bowling Green State University find that the number of Americans over age 50 who are living with their romantic partners – but are not married – has increased from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.75 million in 2010.

As MSN reports, this arrangement provides older cohabitators many of the benefits of marriage without the potential economic risk.

Older couples may want to protect their individual nest eggs so they can pass the inheritance down to their kids. They also may not want to jeopardize a pension, Social Security payment or other benefit they are receiving because they are divorced or widowed. And they may not want to be financially responsible for the other person’s health care bills.

A “been there, done that” attitude is also contributing to the trend, Brown says. According to the team’s research, “71 percent of older couples living together were divorced, and another 18 percent were widowed.” The prospect of re-entering a union may be particularly unappealing for women who feel an “underlying expectation” to take care of their husbands.

Alternative relationships other than cohabitation also appear to be on the rise. Although the numbers aren’t as clear, Brown notes a group engaged in “living apart together.” “They’re very committed to each other ,” she explains, “(but they) don’t want to give up the autonomy that they have.”


#valentinesday lonely flowers

Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo explores a significant demographic trend: the increase in adults living alone in the United States.  As the Washington Post explains,

 Eric Klinenberg starts his journey with a telling fact: More than 50 percent of American adults are single — a number that has jumped from 22 percent in 1950. And one in every seven adults lives alone. Unfortunately, Klinenberg notes, discussions about the single lifestyle “tend to represent it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and diminished public life.”

Klinenberg, who is a professor of sociology at NYU, set out to debunk those myths.  He acknowledges that living alone can be damaging, noting that exile once ranked among the most severe forms of punishment and that many animals, such as hermit crabs, experience deteriorating health when they are left to live alone.

 Many people interviewed for Klinenberg’s study, however — from young professionals to divorced middle agers to independent seniors — attest to the benefits of solo living. They describe feelings of complete freedom, the joy of being able to follow your own schedule, indulge your own habits and focus on your own growth and development instead of always considering or caring for someone else. No compromises. No sacrifices. No attachments. These upbeat singles typically find themselves more socially active, not less. “Although we often associate living alone with social isolation,” Klinenberg writes, “for most adults the reverse is true.”

As the Washington Post article notes, Klinenberg’s readers meet singletons who view solo life as an opportunity to reach out, not an opportunity to withdraw.  And, they have ready access to social media and, in most cases, a world of people right outside their front door.

 And therein lies the paradox that permeates the book. Living alone works best as a lifestyle choice when it leads to greater connection. Every singleton interviewed, even the most enthusiastic, had at least some reservations or worries: pangs about not having children or concerns about spending too much time at the office, poignant questions about failed marriages or the lack of a long-term relationship, fear of facing illness or death alone. But in this way, the author notes, single people are no different from those living with a partner. They “struggle with loneliness or the feeling that they need to change something to make their lives feel more complete,” Klinenberg writes. “But so, too, do their married friends and family members.” In other words, we’re all in the same boat.

Klinenberg urges readers to embrace this new demographic trend as a way to invigorate civic and social life.   He cites examples of living situations that create a supportive community for singles of all ages (through community exercise rooms, dining rooms, or libraries), though he recognizes that living alone can be a painful experience for those who do not live alone by choice.

 Living alone is no guarantee of happiness — nor is dwelling in the company of others. But the author’s findings suggest that crafting policies that promote creative living solutions could lead to happier and emotionally healthier communities. And his book reminds us that to get there, we’ll have to draw on all the individual talent we can muster as we work it out — together.


Baby feet!The birth rate in the United States hasn’t been this low in 100 years, leading social scientists to speculate on the role the Great Recession might be playing in family planning. The Associated Press reports:

The birth rate dropped for the second year in a row since the recession began in 2007. Births fell 2.6 percent last year even as the population grew, numbers released Friday by the National Center for Health Statistics show.

“It’s a good-sized decline for one year. Every month is showing a decline from the year before,” said Stephanie Ventura, the demographer who oversaw the report.

The birth rate, which takes into account changes in the population, fell to 13.5 births for every 1,000 people last year. That’s down from 14.3 in 2007 and way down from 30 in 1909, when it was common for people to have big families.

A sociologist explains how the falling Dow might relate to declining birth rates:

“When the economy is bad and people are uncomfortable about their financial future, they tend to postpone having children. We saw that in the Great Depression the 1930s and we’re seeing that in the Great Recession today,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“It could take a few years to turn this around,” he added.

The birth rate dipped below 20 per 1,000 people in 1932 and did not rise above that level until the early 1940s. Recent recessions, in 1981-82, 1990-91 and 2001, all were followed by small dips in the birth rate, according to CDC figures.

Despite this trend, there is no need to panic.

Cherlin said the U.S. birth rate “is still higher than the birth rate in many wealthy countries and we also have many immigrants entering the country. So we do not need to be worried yet about a birth dearth” that would crimp the nation’s ability to take care of its growing elderly population.

Census data are revealing growing income levels and declining rates of marriage  in the black middle class, according to the Washington Post. One sociologist reflects on her own experience with these trends:

Kris Marsh’s household doesn’t have two incomes. But in Prince George’s County, she is increasingly becoming the face of the black middle class.

Marsh, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, moved to Bowie last year from Los Angeles, determined to live in a place she had always heard was the promised land for educated, successful African Americans. She bought a large, single-family house in a development where many of her neighbors are also single women.

“I found a community I’m in love with,” said Marsh, who has done research on the role that single women are playing in fueling the expansion of the black middle class. “Just because I didn’t have a partner or a husband, it wasn’t going to prevent me from living in the area.”

Marsh’s experience in Maryland typifies broader national trends:

New census statistics from data collected in 2007 and 2008 show that an increasing number of African Americans across the country are becoming more like those in Prince George’s, as well as closer to the national demographic norm. Many blacks made strides during the past decade, with education levels and incomes rising faster than those of the U.S. population as a whole.

In 2008, 20 percent of African Americans had a bachelor’s or advanced degree, a 19 percent jump from 2000. The percentage of black households making more than $75,000 has gone up 42 percent since 1999, from about 13 percent to 18 percent.

But what of the Great Recession? Demographers weigh in:

The statistics do not reflect the effects of the recession, which has caused high unemployment among black men in particular, but demographers say it is unlikely to alter the long-term trend.

A political scientist, along with Marsh, offer some possible explanations for these changes:

Michael Dawson, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said black women are more likely to be single because of the high number of jailed African American men and because black women tend to obtain higher levels of education than black men, narrowing their options for a mate who is available and similarly educated.

Marsh said her research has shown that African American women are marrying later in life, if at all, and postponing having children.

Of course, disparities still exist between whites and blacks in the United States:

Despite the significant gains made by African Americans, there are still large and persistent disparities between blacks and whites in income, education and poverty rates, the national census numbers show. Whites are twice as likely as blacks to be in the upper-income brackets, and African Americans are three times more likely to be living in poverty.

IMG_0204ImmokaleeBillRichardsonLOWScienceBlog recently reported on a new study that finds that darker-skin Latinos earn less money on average than light-skin Latinos.  While some wish to be accepted as “white,” many experience  discrimination based on skin color:

The results suggest that the rapid influx of Latino immigrants will shift the boundaries of race in the United States, but will not end skin-color-based discrimination.

“It is likely we will see change in our racial categories, but there will not be one uniform racial boundary around all Latinos,” said Reanne Frank, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

“Some Latinos will be successful in the bid to be accepted as ‘white’ — usually those with lighter skin. But for those with darker skin and those who are more integrated into U.S. society, we believe there will be a new Latino racial boundary forming around them.”

In filling out surveys, separate questions about race and ethnicity have become increasingly challenging for Latinos to answer:

Under the current census form, Hispanics and Latinos have been set apart as an ethnic group and are instructed to choose the race that best fits them. The 2000 Census had six categories, and the 2010 Census has 15 categories, but “Latino or Hispanic” is not one of the options.

“We are hearing stories from Census takers that many Latinos say the race question does not fit them. They are confused by why they can’t label their race as ‘Hispanic or Latino,’” Frank said.

In the 2000 Census, about 50 percent of those who marked “Hispanic or Latino” as their ethnicity chose “some other race” as their racial category. That has been interpreted by many researchers as them attempting to assert an alternative Latino racial identity, she said.

Thus, Frank suggests the emergence of Latino as a new racial classification in the U.S. as opposed to an ethnic identity:

“We believe the more-integrated immigrants have faced discrimination in the country, and realize that ‘white’ is not an identity that is open to them. They may be trying to develop a new alternative Latino racial category,” Frank said.

“It appears that some with lighter skin will be able to pass as white, but others with darker skin will not and will continue to face discrimination.”

Frank said it is not possible at this time to tell what proportion of Latino immigrants will be accepted as white, and how many will be forced into a new racial category.

Love is (color) blind.The New York Times reports that a new Pew Research Study finds that interracial marriage has reached record highs in the U.S.

Intermarriage among Asian, black, Hispanic and white people now accounts for a record 1 in 6 new marriages in the United States. Tellingly, blacks and whites remain the least-common variety of interracial pairing. Still, black-white unions make up 1 in 60 new marriages today, compared with fewer than 1 in 1,000 back when Barack Obama’s parents wed a half-century ago.

Of all 3.8 million adults who married in 2008, 31 percent of Asians, 26 percent of Hispanic people, 16 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites married a person whose race or ethnicity was different from their own. Those were all record highs.

Such trends may be detrimental to the marriage prospects of black women:

More and more black men are marrying women of other races. In fact, more than 1 in 5 black men who wed (22 percent) married a nonblack woman in 2008. This compares with about 9 percent of black women, and represents a significant increase for black men — from 15.7 percent in 2000 and 7.9 percent in 1980.

Sociologists said the rate of black men marrying women of other races further reduces the already-shrunken pool of potential partners for black women seeking a black husband.

“When you add in the prison population,” said Prof. Steven Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center, “it pretty well explains the extraordinarily low marriage rates of black women.”

“The continuing imbalance in the rates for black men and black women could be making it even harder for black women to find a husband,” said Prof. Andrew J. Cherlin, director of the population center at Johns Hopkins University.

What do these trends mean for the children?

How children of the expanding share of mixed marriages identify themselves — and how they are identified by the rest of society — could blur a benchmark that the nation will approach within a few decades when American Indian, Asian, black and Hispanic Americans and people of mixed race become a majority of the population.

Still, the “blending” of America could be overstated, especially given the relatively low rate of black-white intermarriage compared with other groups, and continuing racial perceptions and divisions, according to some sociologists.

“Children of white-Asian and white-Hispanic parents will have no problems calling themselves white, if that’s their choice,” said Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queens College of the City University of New York and the author of a book about race.

“But offspring of black and another ethnic parent won’t have that option,” Professor Hacker said. “They’ll be black because that’s the way they’re seen. Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, have all known that. Will that change? Don’t hold your breath.”

u-haulRecent data released by the Census Bureau have sociologists and demographers abuzz about mobility in the U.S. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Americans are moving again, following a recession-induced plunge in mobility. But the mobility rate is still at historic lows as housing costs and few job opportunities keep many Americans hunkered down.

Some 37.1 million Americans, or 12.5 percent of the population, moved in 2009, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up – barely – from 11.9 percent the previous year, the lowest the US mobility rate has been since the Bureau began tracking it in 1948.

A normal rate during good economic times, such as in the 1990s, is between 15 and 17 percent.

A sociologist comments:

“What the [recession] has done is frozen people in place,” says Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey Institute and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “I’ve never seen changes of this magnitude in so short a period: It’s stunning for demographers.”

Another expert weighs in on the economic effects of lower mobility:

But the fact that the mobility rate is still very low is bad news for the economy, says Richard Florida, professor of US urban theory at the University of Toronto.

“Mobility is the cornerstone of the American economic backbone,” says Professor Florida, author of the new book “The Great Reset.” “Our economy has been premised on flexibility and mobility. Our workforce has always better able to move to where jobs and opportunities are.”

One demographer explains why local vs. long-distance moves might be problematic:

“It’s not good news,” says William Frey, chief demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It only ticked up for local moves, not long-distance moves. I think the latter is a more significant story than the former – more college-educated people, more young people trying to move up in their careers. They are the lifeblood of migration and growth.”

Another concerning although consistent trend: People with incomes below the poverty line were more likely to move locally – and less likely to make long-distance moves – than others.

But experts see at least some positives of lower mobility:

Moving tends to take a toll on people. Staying put, by contrast, reaps social benefits like stronger family and community connections. Communities with lower levels of mobility tend to enjoy higher levels of trust and well-being, Mr. Frey says.

“People have their kids around them longer. There’s a stronger sense of community, but you’d like to think that would happen more for voluntary reasons,” he says.