The American Community Survey: Economic Changes from 2005 to 2015

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data was released a couple of weeks ago, and I’m surprised how little coverage of its findings there has been in the media. Most of what I have read, moreover, compared 2015 with 2014, or with 2010, and finds that the economy is getting much better for many Americans.

That, however, is not a meaningful comparison if one is looking to the long term, or trying to explain why so many Americans feel so much worse off. One would expect that people would become better off in the recovery from a deep recession, or worse off in the aftermath of the peak of a bubble.   Politicians, seeking to make points for their sides, often base their talking points on data from such non-comparable years, but that is disingenuous. As it happens, there are enough economic similarities between the first year of American Community Survey data, in 2005, and the latest year, 2015, to make a comparison between them meaningful. What follows is a discussion, with 26 charts, of the economic trends I found most interesting from that comparison – for the United States, New York City, and New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut. Let’s take a break from the fantasy and deception of politics and look at some reality.

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The Staten Island Expressway: Now With Ten Lanes, No EIS Required

For most of its history, the Staten Island Expressway had six lanes, with three in each direction, and service roads that were interrupted rather than continuous. For much of the past decade it has been under construction with the publicly announced purpose of adding mass transit – a busway down the center. With “auxiliary lanes” added in the vicinity of Todt Hill, according to the announced plan.

A design approval document was prepared in support of the CE determination. A review of the project indicates that the project will have no significant environmental impact. It does not individually nor cumulatively have a significant environmental impact, and is excluded from the requirement to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or an Environmental Assessment (EA).”

During construction the traffic lanes were shifted first to one side of the road, and then to the other. Including all the lanes used at one time or another, the whole thing seemed to be 12 lanes wide. So what would the final product look like? Last Saturday, on a trip to New Jersey, I found out. It is a 10-lane road with two – one in each direction — in theory restricted to high occupancy vehicles (3+ people), but with limited compliance with that rule and no enforcement. The two additional general traffic “auxiliary lanes” extend from the Verrazano Bridge nearly to Victory Boulevard, almost the entire length of the island. Surprise!

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The Subway: Mean Distance Between Failures Falling, So Is the 1980s Returning?

In the 1990s there was an improving statistic that was as central to New York City’s turnaround as the decrease in the crime rate: the increase in mean distance between failures (MDBF) on the New York City subway. This figure, which measures how long the average subway car goes before it breaks down in service, is considered a key measure of the overall health of a railroad.

In any statistic there are random variations, in part due to temporary unusual conditions. That’s why a one-month increase or decrease in the crime rate, compared with a year earlier, or a one-year increase or decrease in school test scores, doesn’t really mean much. Once a trend is really established, however, it ought to be news. Which is why I was shocked to find, in the MTA Board materials, that MDBF has been falling for three years, not on a one-month basis but on a 12 month moving average basis. The decrease is now significant enough to affect service as people experience it, and may mark the start of a significant downward spiral for the system.

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The U.S. Labor Force: Running Away from Metros With High Costs of Living

In my prior post I noted that the labor force of New York City, which had been soaring for years due to an influx of job-seeking young adults from around the country and around the world, suddenly fell from May 2015 to May 2016.

I also noted that as I wrote reports on metro area economies and commercial real estate markets over the past few months I found the same trend – labor force growth slowdowns or outright declines – elsewhere.

To try to figure out what was going on, I downloaded a quick table of the change in the metro area labor force from May 2014 to May 2015 and from May 2015 to May 2016 for metro areas around the country. The data shows growth slowdowns and in some cases outright declines for some of the economically strongest – and most expensive – metro areas in the country. And faster labor force growth, or in one case a shift from negative to positive, in some places that are cheap, even those that have had weak economies over the past decade.

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The Millennials, Treated Like Serfs, May Have Started to Flee New York City

I have long wondered if and when New York’s young workers, tired of low wages (or permanent freelancing or “internships”), squeezed by rising rents into living more than one to an apartment or even a room, faced with higher taxes that contribute to those rents, facing squeezes on the subway and diminished public services, would decide they have had enough. And realize there will be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow like the ones prior generations received. No rent regulated or Mitchell Lama apartment, no owner-occupied unit purchased outside a housing bubble or at an “insider” price in a conversion, no stable job with benefits, no improving schools. Just higher taxes and deteriorating services to pay for those dead and gone or retired to Florida.

I have wondered if, at some point, the incredible inflow of hundreds of thousands of young workers to New York City that I chronicled here

would slow, stop, and reverse. And based on data I downloaded Friday for a report I’ll be writing Monday on the job, it may have started to happen.

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Census Bureau Pension Data for 2014 and 2015: Not Usable Thanks to NYC

The U.S. Census Bureau has released its “individual unit” state and local government pension fund data for FY 2014 and FY 2015, and based on past practice I probably would have used it to update my databases, produce a bunch of charts, and write a post or two. But comparing these years with the years preceding, it seems that the data has been trashed. This is something I feared after union-backed Comptroller Stringer’s election, reformed sinner actuary Robert North’s departure, and the imposition of somewhat stricter reporting requirements by the Government Accounting Standards Board, which show more clearly just how underfunded public employee pension funds are.

The new problem is in the Census Bureau data for the NYC Teachers Retirement System, joining the problem I had already found in data for the NYC police retirement system. I learned in government to never assume a conspiracy when a foul up is an equally credible explanation. Whatever the cause, however, if a fix is to be made the Census Bureau nonetheless will not be updating the 2014 and 2015 public employee data until the 2016 data is released next year. So I’ll probably wait to write about NY and NJ public employee pensions again until then.

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“We Will Build the Information Superhighway”

That’s what lobbyists for the telecommunication companies promised in the mid-1990s, in the run up to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. What the industry’s lobbyists were trying to beat back was municipally owned telecommunications utilities, which are far more common in electric, gas, and even cable television than those living in urban New York might expect. State- and local government- owned electric and gas utilities employed 88,343 full time equivalent workers in the U.S. in FY 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Excluding water and sewer utilities, private utilities employed 500,000 people in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The telecom companies got their way. There would be no equivalent of the federal government’s rural electrification program for high speed internet. So 20 years latter did the industry keep its promises, or was the general public bamboozled by lobbyists and campaign cash?

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